A recently released report prepared by The National Marriage Project under the direction of W. Bradford Wilcox is full of very interesting data about sex, marriage, and family life in contemporary America, some of which we’ll be ventilating in a forthcoming issue of First Things.
One appendix, however, caught my attention, because it helped me understand why my experience is so out of whack with a commonly reiterated statistic.
We’ve all heard that the national divorce rate is nearly 50 percent, which means that nearly half of all marriages will end in divorce. OK, but if that’s the case, then why do I know so few people my age who are divorced?
Well, one answer is that in comparison to my parents generation, fewer are married. Another answer is that the returns aren’t yet in, which is to say that some marriages will break up later in life.
But Wilcox offers the most significant explanation. It turns out that getting divorced is like getting lung cancer. There are risk factors. So, if you make over $50,000 annually, then you’re 30 percent less likely to get divorce. Have a college degree? 25 percent less likely. Haven’t gotten pregnant or had children before getting married? 24 percent less likely. Religious? Fourteen percent less likely. Parents still married? Fourteen percent less likely.
Those are some pretty significant factors, so much so that if you’ve got a college degree, a decently paying job, haven’t been knocked up, your parents are still married, and you go to church, then you’re not at all likely to get divorced. That, I suppose, explains why so few of my friends have been divorced, certainly far fewer than 50 percent.
In any event, as the report as a whole makes clear, there seems to be a virtuous circle at work for those who are lucky in our society. Educational levels, economic success, and family stability reinforce each other. It’s not something we didn’t already know, but it’s useful to be reminded.
And it’s also useful to be reminded of something else: The sexual revolution, like most revolutions (all revolutions?) has ended up benefiting the people on the top at the expense of the people on the bottom. Bourgeois Americans have judiciously incorporated sexual freedom into their lives, retaining to a great degree the stabilizing institution of marriage. Not so the folks in the middle and on the bottom, many of whom are undone by the collapse of older moral strictures.
I’ve long been baffled by progressives. They make the observation, largely true, that increased economic freedom since the Reagan years has disproportionately benefited those who are most capable of taking advantage of new opportunities in the marketplace—that is to say the well-educated and well-disciplined bourgeoisie. But these same progressives line up to trash traditional morality, ignoring the fact that the same holds for sexual freedom.
No, not the same but worse. It’s not at all clear that investment banker bonuses diminish the earning power of coal miners or janitors. But it is clear, I think, that the sexual liberties that can be gently folded into upper-middle class life wreck havoc on working class communities.
That’s why I think that a Catholic commitment to what’s known as “the preferential option for the poor”—a proper commitment, I might add—would seem to require a fairly strict social conservatism when it comes to sex, marriage, and the family.