As a general rule, the New York Times tries so hard to discredit Jewish and Christian morality that it is foolish to trust any of its articles purporting to describe Census Bureau statistics, especially when the latter involve marriage and family. It is best to treat analyses appearing in the Times as provocations reminding you to check into matters for yourself. A prime example is a January 17 Times article entitled "51% of Women Are Now Living Without a Spouse" (online by subscription only).
There is a second rule I adopted for myself years ago. While paying respectful attention to numbers that include the entire U.S. population, I disaggregate those numbers and single out the numbers for white non-Hispanic persons, who form the large majority. The point of this rule is to test common impressions.
There are two reasons why this second rule is useful. First, it provides a clear look at the single largest ethnic profile. Second, many behavioral patterns differ significantly among ethnic groups. Blending them together changes the general picture rather drastically. For example, two-thirds of Asian women twenty years old or older live with husbands present, as compared with one-third of black women.
Thus, the profile of white non-Hispanic women in the most recent data (2005) shows seventy-six million age twenty and over.
Some 12 percent of all these women were divorced (some more than once). Fewer than 2 percent were separated. Only about 15 percent of those over twenty had never yet married.
An impressive 58 percent of white non-Hispanic women were married with husbands present.
Looking at these numbers another way, add to the 58 percent of white non-Hispanic women with husbands present, the 12 percent that had been divorced as of 2005, and the fewer than 2 percent separated, plus the 1 percent married but with husbands absent. Also add another 11 percent who were, not by choice, living as widows. Therefore, the total of white non-Hispanic women over twenty who were or had been married was 85 percent. It is obvious that, in that year, marriage was the overwhelmingly preferred choice of American white women over the age of twenty. In addition, a significant proportion of the not-yet-married women over twenty will also enter into marriage in the future. The proportion choosing marriage, then, easily exceeds 90 percent.
Because these numbers do not include black, Hispanic, and Asian women, they do not give an accurate picture of the whole U.S. female population. But they do give a clear picture of the largest culture, as a point of comparison.
Finally, unlike the Times, these numbers report only those white non-Hispanic women ages twenty and over. I am excluding those age 15-19, because only relatively few teenagers (93,000 out of some 6.3 million) have experienced marriage.
The moral of this story, then, is to do your own research; do not always trust what you read in the newspapers. As though you needed to be told that.
Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the editorial board of First Things. The author is grateful to Laura Niver and Bryan Prior for their research. You may contact him through his website, www.michaelnovak.net.