The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Fall
2009

The Message in the Meltdown:

How the Downturn Reveals Forgotten Family Assets


Bryce J. Christensen


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Bombarded by headlines during the past fifteen months announcing the failure of this or that bank, investment firm, or manufacturer, Americans may have missed reports of one downturn that comes as good news. For the first time in a long time, divorce lawyers are apparently experiencing a significant decline in business. As the economy began to unravel in 2008, Elizabeth Razzi of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that financial strain was showing in ways unnoticed by those worried about skyrocketing foreclosure rates and long unemployment lines: “Lawyers and financial planners anecdotally say they are seeing more clients staying married—if only for the time being—simply because they cannot afford to break up.” Within weeks the Associated Press carried an article by Amanda Lee Myers and Christine Armario amplifying the theme: “Sometimes the financial implications of a divorce are so grim that a couple whose marriage is on the rocks decide to give it another try.” Explaining the decision of a Minnesota couple to forgo divorce, one divorce mediator remarked, “The thinking was they need to work a little harder and stay together because of the changing asset picture.”

To be sure, the financial crisis might be causing some divorces. Last January, the McClatchy-Tribune News Service carried a story citing experts seeing divorces triggered by intensifying “disagreements over money . . . [so] exacerbating any other relationship problems couples might be having.” Nonetheless, other analysts recognize that “tight times can put a damper on the financial ability of couples to end their partnership.” A manager of a California-based divorce helpline, Colleen Duncan, referred to economic circumstances in explaining why the nation’s most populous state had witnessed “a slight decline” in divorce cases in 2008. “I think,” Duncan opined, “people are frightened by what divorce costs.”

Given the global scope of the crisis, the divorce-dampening effects of the meltdown have captured the attention of observers outside the United States. A British newspaper story in August 2008 identified economic troubles as the reason that divorce rates for England and Wales were the lowest seen since 1981. One barrister interviewed indicated that the “economic crisis and credit crunch may have had an effect on divorce rates.” “People just can’t afford to get divorced at the minute,” she commented.

As early as November 2008, well-placed professionals were working hard to interpret the divorce downturn. U.S. Newswire reported that members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers had discerned a long-term pattern characterized by “a decline in the number of divorces during national economic downturns.”[1] Others saw the divorce downturn as yet another indication of the widespread effects of the meltdown. When a Boston-area analyst surveyed the wreckage in December 2008, he could justly assert to the Patriot Ledger, “As this winter began, virtually no industry or region in the country was untouched by the recession’s icy grip.” A falling tide lowers all boats. Why should divorce lawyers be exempt from the misery afflicting everyone else?

Yet a closer look reveals that the lowered divorce rate is more than just another indicator of economic distress. In fact, those who have reported on the downturn in the divorce trade have frequently—albeit obliquely—underscored truths about the meaning of economic and social health in a capitalist economy. In particular, the reports of a slowdown in the divorce industry have generally acknowledged in a backhanded way that families deliver vital economic benefits that are lost when marriages fail. The importance of those benefits looms large during a time of economic retrenchment. Unfortunately, many couples that divorced when the economy was stronger are now learning some hard lessons. More important are the lessons some Americans are belatedly learning about the non-monetary benefits that the family delivers, benefits that become especially priceless when substitutes become harder to secure within an unraveling cash nexus.

The ‘Diseconomies’ of Family Breakup

The lessons of the divorce slowdown may come as a shock to a country accustomed to divorce as simply one more option in a consumer culture. After all, aren’t Americans free to make a choice in replacing a spouse whenever they choose, just as they are in replacing an automobile whenever they choose? Even Americans blind to the moral issues at stake have found themselves in an economics tutorial when contemplating divorce in newly straitened circumstances. In explaining why some couples are rethinking plans to separate, one California divorce mediator remarked to the McClatchy-Tribune News Service, “[Couples] don’t realize the expenses of having to support two households.” As Elizabeth Razzi spells out, “Without two incomes—and the economies of scale that come from two people sharing living expenses—the home may be a serious long-term drain on [a] person’s finances.”

The policy experts have always agreed with that assessment. In a 1998 study, Martha Minow concluded: “Two households, in most circumstances, will be unable to achieve the standard of living available to the one.”[2] Legal scholar Jed Abraham likewise understood the losses, claiming that marital dissolution “sunders an economically efficient household into two inefficient and antagonistic halves.” After divorce, “both parties will have lost the economies of scale that the intact family provides.”[3] In a 2005 study, the late sociologist Steven Nock illuminated the economic advantages of marriage:

When two people marry and merge households, they not only gain obvious economies of scale but also tend to develop an efficient division of labor. To the extent that spouses have different skills, preferences or abilities, marriage allows each to concentrate on those in which he or she has a relative advantage. Such efficiencies have traditionally implied that wives would focus on nonmarket labor, such as child care and homemaking, because women’s wages were so much lower than men’s. But even in contemporary marriages, efficiencies from a division of labor still arise. For example, married parents with young children sometimes stagger their work hours to permit one to deliver the children to school and the other to be home when school is out. This simple strategy reduces the demand for expensive day care. As couples refine their division of tasks, the household benefits to the extent that each partner’s productivity increases.[4]

Some analysts have suggested that the division of labor explains the “productivity effect of marriage” evident in the “faster wage growth” found among married men. This differential persists even in statistical analyses that account for education, race, work experience, and occupation.[5] Marriage indeed looks like a wealth-generator to economists who study it closely. In a 2002 study, Purdue economists demonstrated that “being married has a large effect on household wealth,” with unmarried individuals experiencing a 63 percent reduction in total wealth over the life course when compared with their married peers. The Purdue team found that separated, never-married, divorced, cohabiting, and widowed men and women all had “significantly lower wealth than the currently married.” The data suggested that marriage fosters affluence because “it provides institutionalized protection, which generates economies of scale, task specialization, and access to work-related fringe benefits, that lead to rewards like broader social networks and higher savings rates.”[6]

Nor do economic advantages show up only when analysts look at how marriage enriches husbands and wives. Economists find that child rearing is significantly less cost-efficient when marriages disintegrate. According to the authors of a 2001 study:

The costs associated with supporting and rearing children [after] separation where both parents have ongoing involvement with the children are greater than the costs of supporting and rearing children in intact households. . . . Two separate households need to be maintained, and coordination (i.e., transportation and communication) costs between the two households are also incurred. Separation reverses the economies of scale available when parents share accommodation as a couple.

The authors conclude that parental divorce means “consequent diseconomies” that make it impossible to maintain “the preseparation living standards of all family members” without some “increase in overall government assistance . . . or increase in the parents’ earnings.” [7]

That single mothers have been especially hard-hit by the mortgage crisis is not surprising given the sizable “diseconomies” incident to divorce. Associated Press journalist Alan Zibel reported in January that banking experts have traditionally considered any household spending 30 percent or more of its income for housing to be “financially strapped.” However, Zibel cites recent data indicating that “among single parents . . . about 27 percent nationwide spend at least 38 percent of their income on housing. In California the strain is worse: About four in 10 single parents meet that threshold.” No wonder that when Congress belatedly investigated down-payment assistance programs with home-foreclosure rates running three times the normal rate, they found that single mothers were disproportionately represented among the clients.[8]

These very real and substantial economic advantages of marriage have suddenly risen to the attention of Americans whose altered financial circumstances sensitize them to the loss of such advantages. Surveying the economic rubble of 2008, financial experts had reason to review the findings of a 2003 study. Prominent among them is the conclusion that “the deleterious effect associated with a disadvantaged family background is completely offset by marrying and staying married (i.e., disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged women who marry have similarly low odds of poverty).” In other words, “marriage . . . offers a way out of poverty for disadvantaged women. The odds of living in poverty when disadvantaged women marry are similar to odds experienced by low-risk women who marry and are lower than the odds for low-risk women who remain single.” “This kind of statistical evidence,” the researchers acknowledge, “supports the ‘marriage as a panacea’ view.” Though the authors qualify their endorsement of the marriage-as-a-panacea view (especially where marriage is preceded by out-of-wedlock childbearing), their research underscores the economic benefits of marriage.[9]

Challenges to the Traditional Household

However, when Steven Nock insists that an advantageous division of labor develops “even in contemporary marriages,” he is obliquely acknowledging that Americans no longer enjoy the full economic advantages characteristic of traditional marriage. Indeed, the erosion of these advantages may have contributed to the upsurge in the divorce rate since the middle of the twentieth century. The recent meltdown has reminded Americans of the cost of divorce as the final repudiation of traditional marriage, yet observers have lamented how the economic advantages of traditional marriage have been bleeding away for a long time.

Noting the importance of traditional marriage patterns, historian Allan Carlson has identified “householding” as the heart of such patterns, householding that translated into “reciprocal, complementary tasks [for] husbands and wives” engaged in various types of “household production, ranging from tool making and weaving to the keeping of livestock and the garden patch.” Not just a legal or social union, traditional marriage thus created “a basic economic unit,” one that “bound each family together” as a “community of work.”[10] The economic significance of traditional marriage also looms large for sociologist Arland Thornton, who notes that in the pre-industrial world, “there were few economic enterprises outside the home; and the family was the basic organizational unit for many important activities, including production and consumption.” Within this “family economy,” Thornton emphasizes, “family roles—such as husband, wife, and child—implied and overlapped economic roles. . . . The husband generally directed the economic activity of the family, which was often, but not always an agricultural enterprise. While the wife maintained a primary role in caring for the home and children, she often made an important contribution to the family economic enterprise.”[11]

Even when contemporary marriages survive, few of them now look anything like the “community of work” or “the family economic enterprise” of Carlson and Thornton. A protracted series of cultural changes have stripped the home of many of its traditional functions. By the 1950s, the home had already lost so many productive functions that Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin feared it was fast becoming a “mere incidental parking place” for husbands and wives who performed their important labors elsewhere.[12] Assessing the situation more recently, the poet Wendell Berry lamented, “The modern household is the place where [a] consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.”[13]

More than a few wives have tried to resist the consumerist tide that Berry deplored by devoting themselves to the labors of homemaking. They have sought to preserve the efficiencies of a traditional division of labor; however, they have found themselves trapped in difficult economic and cultural circumstances. Many have experienced what one historian of the 1960s aptly described as the “festering contradiction of modern womanhood,” a contradiction consequent to the economic and cultural erosion of their traditional homecrafts.[14]

Yet even in the late twentieth century, many American couples managed to preserve a surprising amount of vitality in their home economy. Writing in 1980, economist Reuben Gronau calculated that the value of home production in 1973 still exceeded 60 percent of the typical family’s money income before taxes and 70 percent of money income after taxes. Gruneau’s study revealed that the value of home production was particularly high in households with young children: in these households, the value of home production—depressed only slightly by wives’ employment—ran almost equal to that of the household’s money income after taxes.[15]

Likewise indicating the persistence of a home economy that had retained its value was a 1992 study in which economists John Devereux and Luis Locay determined that, although the relative economic value of householding had fallen from 1930 to 1985, it still accounted for goods and services valued at 28 percent of the value of all goods and services in the market sector.[16] Though further erosion in the home economy has probably occurred since 1985—especially since the labor-force participation rate for married women has risen, according to the Census Bureau, from 53.8 percent in 1985 to 61.1 percent in 2007—any reasonable estimate of the remaining value of home production will surely put it at more than 20 percent of the value of market-sector goods and services. Moreover, as the market economy sharply contracts in the current crisis, the household economy will not comparably contract; rather, it will expand to compensate.

One indication that the household economy is growing as the market economy shrinks: data from the National Restaurant Association and reported by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service indicate that restaurant sales for the first nine months of 2008 were down for the first time since 1991. Figures for the last three months of 2008 and the first half of 2009 will probably show even sharper drops in the restaurant trade. The downturn has been so pronounced that some restaurant owners, according to NJBIZ, fear for the survival of their businesses. Clearly, more people are cooking and eating at home—and packing lunches at home for work. Americans are probably rediscovering other ways to make home production substitute for market-purchased goods as more people turn to growing vegetables at home rather than purchasing them at the grocery store; fixing their own automobiles, rather than taking them to a garage; repairing their clothing rather than buying new clothes.

In the re-discovery of the home economy, Americans may begin re-discovering some essential truths that go beyond those affecting their checkbooks. For some of what the home economy delivers transcends the imperatives of the cash matrix. The care that a homemaking mother gives her young child, for instance, surpasses the care typically available at a day-care center, even a center characterized as “high quality” by those in the field.[17] Even in providing something as inconsequential as home-grown tomatoes, the home economy typically delivers a freshness and quality almost impossible to match through purchase. Similarly, a home-cooked meal will generally surpass a commercially prepared meal not only in custom-prepared taste and nutrition value but also in emotional ambiance. In short, whenever Americans satisfy their needs in the home economy and outside of the cash nexus world of the market and office, they are likely to realize benefits that resist the accountant’s metrics.

What Modern American Families Have Lost

For many Americans, the non-monetary benefits of the home economy were lost during the boom years. That loss surfaced in the reflections of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi when he puzzled, amid the apparent prosperity of the late 1990s, over data indicating that American dependence upon psychotropic drugs had increased even as household income had climbed. Csikszentmihalyi suspected the malign influence of an economic rationality within which “the opportunity costs of playing with one’s child, reading poetry, or attending a family reunion [became] too high, and so one [stopped] doing such irrational things.”[18] Americans embedded in the richness of a true home economy, however, would not have fallen victim to a reductive rationality and therefore would not have surrendered activities such as playing with a child or participating in a family reunion.

Perceptive observers may have recognized a telling symptom of widespread blindness to the true wealth of the home economy—non-monetary and monetary—in the linked trends of recent decades: homes grew much bigger even as families grew much smaller. Journalists have marveled at “the growth of big houses” at a time of “shrinking families and increasing costs for construction and energy.” These mega-homes, reporters noted, were the property of “suburban homebuyers seeking luxury, rather than big families needing space.” In the retreat from marital child-bearing and rearing that reduced the size of the families, Americans witnessed the loss of the home-economy’s most precious non-monetary fruit: life itself, in the form of children. Nor have other fruits of a vibrant home economy been in evidence in monster McMansions. Though a few homebuyers have used a room or two for an economically useful home office, their more typical concern, as noted by a 2007 story in the Grand Rapids Press, has been with “media rooms, which used to be called TV rooms back when there were fewer electronic devices.” Sorokin and Berry would recognize these huge homes as just oversize “incidental parking places,” utterly functionally useless except for “consum[ing] television or . . . other consumable diversion.”

Though huge, these homes brought large debts in the form of staggering mortgages, yet delivered few of the benefits of a traditional household economy. Completely absorbed in the cash-nexus labors necessary to pay their mortgages, Americans became the very economic rationalists Csikszentmihalyi worried about, indifferent to the rewards of playing with a child or attending a family reunion. But in another sense, the owners of these big but unpopulated homes grew wildly irrational. They became overconfident in their power to keep pulling in the money in a world in which the stock market boomed while the home economy dwindled. They indulged in what Allan Carlson characterized in 1999 as the illusions of prosperity: “Any nation can enjoy a burst of prosperity if it is willing to eat its own moral, social, and biological seed corn.” That is what Americans have done as “child care, meal preparation, and related family-centric activities moved from the uncounted sphere of home production to the marketplace,” so fostering “the illusion of growth in the gross national product” by hiding “the growing dysfunction of the home.”[19]

It was therefore appropriate that the economic reality started to show its ugly face when banks had to foreclose on homes that should have been brimming granaries for America’s moral, social, and biological seed corn but were—in fact—just shells, empty of everything but plasma-screen televisions and surround-sound speakers. Perhaps the meaning of home will now loom larger in the minds of couples sobered by the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of homes in foreclosures, sobered enough to cancel their appointments with the divorce lawyer.

In theory, divorced Americans might join their hard-pressed married counterparts in rediscovering at least some of the benefits of a rejuvenated home economy. Yet they will find this difficult to pull off. The divorced man who has to hold down two or three jobs to make child support payments—as many divorced men do—will find it exceedingly hard to devote as much time to a family garden as a married husband with no child-support payments. Consequently, married—not divorced—readers will be able to heed the advice of an article in the January-February 2009 Gardening How-To urging Americans to “save money—and eat better, too”—by growing their own fruits and vegetables. The author may be exaggerating when she promises readers they can “save a small fortune on fresh herbs alone,” but real savings are possible through home gardening. Note, for instance, that from a single packet of lettuce seed an enterprising gardener can produce “the equivalent of 10 to 15 bags” of the baby lettuce selling for $3 to $5 per bag in the grocery store. Or consider how a hard-working gardener can enjoy “fresh tomatoes all summer” for about the cost of one pint of grape tomatoes bought at the supermarket. But it will be overwhelmingly married Americans who realize such garden-grown savings.

In the same way, the economic downturn will help many women to rediscover why home sewing was already gaining popularity in the relatively prosperous Nineties, according to a story then in the Austin American Statesman, as a way of dealing with “the rising prices and deteriorating quality of store-bought clothes.” But once again, few divorced women are likely to share in this rediscovery. Though divorced mothers might especially need its economic benefits, home sewing is unlikely to happen among a group characterized by some researchers as “overburdened, stressed, depressed, and hassled.”[20]

Because of the stress and depression characteristic of many divorced women, they will not only miss out on the economic advantages of home production but will also suffer from the economic disadvantages of needing the professional services less often required by their married peers. Epidemiologists report that, compared to married peers, single mothers are “almost three times more likely to have experienced a major depressive disorder.”[21] But then both genders suffer costly psychological disorders when marriages dissolve. Whereas researchers report that 20 percent of all married individuals enjoy that optimal state of mental health labeled “flourishing,” only 10 percent of divorced individuals do.[22] In a 2000 study, researchers identified marital status as “the most important factor” for predicting the three forms of depression analyzed. Among men, the likelihood of a depressive episode ran an astounding nine times higher among the unmarried than among the married. A similar pattern emerged among women, with unmarried women being three times more vulnerable than their married peers to dysphoria.[23] “No social variable,” the authors of a 1997 study concluded, “is more consistently related with the distribution of psychopathology than marital status.”[24]

Nor are adults the only ones who may need the costly services of psychologists and psychiatrists after a marital breakup. Children who have watched their parents split often require expensive therapy. Parental divorce, argues researcher Andrew Cherlin, indeed counts for more than genetics in determining children’s mental health. Adducing evidence from the study of female twin-pairs, Cherlin has established that “parental separation or divorce increased the risk of major depression for members of a twin-pair by 42 percent, even after making allowances for genetic relatedness.” Cherlin drives home the point: “[Parental] divorce indeed has an effect on mental health.”[25] That same point stands out in a 2004 national study of 35,938 children (ages 6 to 11) and adolescents (ages 12 to 17), revealing that “those living outside of two-biological-parent married families tend to report more behavioral and emotional problems.”[26]

Beyond compelling adult and child survivors to turn to therapists lie the additional disadvantages divorce entails by also putting those it affects in need of medical attention for physical illnesses. In national health data, scholars trace a clear linkage between enduring marriages and good health, failed marriages and poor health. “Marital status,” writes one team of researchers, “is related to the health status of all the family members, including both parents and children.”[27]

Looking particularly at how home life affects children’s health, a task force appointed by the American Academy of Pediatrics stressed the importance of an enduring parental union in a 2003 report: “Marriage,” in the view of the task force, “is beneficial in many ways,” in large part because “people behave differently when they are married. They have healthier lifestyles, eat better, and mother each other’s health.” The scholars further stipulated that children do not enjoy the same advantages in a stepfamily or in a household headed by unmarried cohabiting parents.[28]

Of course, when rich Americans experience psychological distress or physical illness as a consequence of divorce, they have plenty of money to pay for palliative therapy or treatment. But when middle- or working-class Americans imitate their example of marital heedlessness, they must deal with the psychological and medical problems without such resources. Political scientist James Q. Wilson has this reality in view when he compares how the affluent have glamorized “the pleasures of loose sexuality” to a hurtful version of a child’s game of “crack the whip in which a line of children, holding hands, starts running in a circle as the first child rotates so as to require the others to follow. The first child, or the first few, move slowly, but at the end of the line the last few must run so fast that many fall down.” This dangerous game “may well help us understand why a changed culture—the decline of stigma, the embrace of cohabitation, and the acceptance of divorce—may influence most powerfully the people who did the least to create it.” As Wilson remarks, “The tolerance and individualism of the affluent have exacted a heavy price from the poor.”[29]

The Real Danger of Welfare Programs

To be sure, lawmakers have tried to remedy the disparity in the consequences of family breakdown by giving the poor at least some financial insulation from these effects. This insulation has taken the form of various welfare programs providing cash, housing, food, and medical care to poor single parents. Americans now can recognize the folly and pathos in most such efforts. For though welfare measures may have reduced the effects of family disintegration by giving desperate single mothers and children some access to essential food, shelter, and medical care, these measures do virtually nothing to alleviate the psychological distress, the violent crime, the academic failure, and the social alienation consequent to family disintegration. Indeed, a growing body of social research now indicates that no amount of household income prevents the psychological and behavioral harms occasioned by family breakdown, even if the wealthy can access better therapy, legal consultation, and treatment.[30] What is more, the meltdown has removed some of the financial insulation separating formerly wealthy individuals from the merely monetary consequences of marital and familial recklessness. Hence, divorce lawyers find fewer clients among yuppies suddenly aware that they can no longer handle the diseconomies produced by marital breakup.

Too many Americans, however, are still living with the consequences of policies dubiously designed to protect not only the poor but also the relatively affluent from the consequences of family disintegration. These policies have actually exposed more Americans to psychological, social, and long-term economic harm. Government welfare policies, for example, have fostered a dangerously naïve belief that single mothers and their children can rely on welfare programs instead of an intact marriage. After surveying the research on the social impact of dependency programs, Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward assert, “Just about everyone agrees that . . . [welfare] creates an incentive for two-parent families to break up, or not to form in the first place.”[31] When middle-class couples consider breaking up, they too do so aware of a wide range of government-sponsored programs that cater to post-divorce needs: providing training for displaced homemakers, subsidizing day-care for young children, giving oversight and correction and drug therapy for older children disoriented by their parents’ divorce, and collecting child support from the non-custodial parent while enforcing visitation rights on the custodial parent.

When David Schramm tried in 2003 to assess what divorce is “costing state and federal governments in matter of hard dollars,” he ended up with a figure of more than $33 billion.[32] Schramm’s analysis most likely understates the costs, as a study released in 2008 by the New York-based Institute for American Values pegged the annual federal, state, and local costs imposed by divorce at $112 billion. Even that figure represents a “minimum” estimate, as an Institute spokesman put divorce-related expenditures over the last decade in excess of more than $1 trillion dollars.[33] Taxpayers have responded with bitter outrage to the staggering cost of bailouts that have poured hundreds of billions into the coffers of corporations whose executives helped cause the economic crisis in the first place. As reported by the Los Angeles Times in September 2008, public forums have resounded with the fury of “critics demanding to know why overburdened taxpayers should bail out [such firms].” Perhaps because those on the take are so numerous, the public has responded with no comparable outcry to the $1 trillion bailout of those who have taken their marriages and families into social bankruptcy.

But a hard-pressed nation may now belatedly recognize how ill it could afford the dubious and costly bailout of the social bankruptcy of divorce. Since some believe greedy corporate executives helped cause the current crisis, and since social scientists have uncovered significant evidence that boys raised without fathers suffer from arrested moral development,[34] sober analysts might conclude that the economic meltdown was in part the result of an earlier social disintegration evident in skyrocketing divorce rates—the costs of both meltdowns imposed on the longsuffering taxpayer.

The considerable public costs of underwriting divorce have made marriage and family life harder even for taxpayers in intact marriages. Social scientists Randal Day and Wade Mackey have expressed concern about the plight of traditional fathers, whose task of supporting their own wives and children has grown more difficult because of the state-imposed tax burdens of also supporting the “mother-state-child family” created by divorce and illegitimacy.[35] Carrying the state-imposed burden of bailing out other people’s failed marriages was not easy in good times. Today’s economic woes only exacerbate the difficulty.

Those on the receiving end of family-failure bailouts may have been spared some pain. But let no one suppose that they are enjoying life. Poor people who have bankrupted themselves socially by following the examples of Hollywood stars and corporate executives have particularly suffered. The bailouts the poor have received via welfare have left them in dire circumstances as they re-discover hard truths about the value of an intact family. Even in satisfying basic material needs, the welfare state often fails. In good times, marital crack-up still often leaves single mothers and their children in a poverty only slightly alleviated by welfare benefits. As David T. Ellwood pondered the plight of these mothers and children in 2000, he identified “the biggest underlying source of poverty and insecurity for single-parent families: the family must generally rely on the earnings of one person—typically a low-skilled woman—for support.” Ellwood could identify only one solution: “The best solution might be to find a way to reduce the incidence of single-parent families in the first place.”[36]

A Return to Social Sanity?

For those who share Ellwood’s assessment, the economic downturn may prove beneficial. To the degree that it reminds Americans of the abiding value of an intact marriage and the high cost of a broken marriage, the downturn can help America return to social sanity. Though rich and poor alike need such sanity, a downturn that humbles the affluent may be especially beneficial. As James Q. Wilson has noted, the sexual recklessness of the elite has set a destructive example for the poor. If diminished affluence induces a renewed sobriety that makes the elite more protective of their marriages and less prone to divorce, all society will benefit.

But a downturn that instructs the formerly affluent in lessons in humility, morality, and marital responsibility may deliver harsher lessons to the less fortunate whose marriages and families have already been torn apart in the cultural riptide the affluent helped create. Americans can only grieve as they read of a growing number of American families dealing with food shortages—and hunger. Because—as Ellwood noted—it is overwhelmingly single-mother families that are mired in poverty, Americans can assume that those families are the prime sufferers from lack of food in the downturn. If family breakup hurts poor Americans in good times, it can only hurt more in bad times. Sobering words from Jesus are apropos: “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:31).

Reports of Americans going hungry because of the economic crisis will stir in the minds of historically conscious Americans a recollection of how families dealt with hunger during the much more severe circumstances of the Great Depression. Social worker Lillian Wald reported seeing Depression-era parents who had “starved themselves for weeks so that their children might not go hungry.”[37] Americans can only hope that not many of their fellow countrymen have to resort to a desperate strategy during the current crisis—especially since it would be much harder for unwed mothers (who are much more numerous now than they were in the 1930s) to make this strategy work than for married couples.

Yet marital and family ties had shown their power to deal with hunger long before the Great Depression. Consider, for example, how family ties helped preserve those who survived the catastrophe experienced by the nineteenth-century Donner Party, trapped for months by blizzards in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Of the 48 members who survived months of starvation, a vastly disproportionate number were traveling with family. As Stephen A. McCurdy explains, “members of family groups formed strong support networks, saving food and other provisions for their members rather than sharing them with the group,” while “persons traveling alone did not have the benefit of these networks.” Indeed, although some party members survived by resorting to cannibalism, McCurdy reports that in “the two family groups with the highest survival rates (the Breens and the Reeds, all of whose snowbound members survived) are considered not to have engaged in this cannibalism.”[38]

As hardship today pushes some desperate Americans toward something like financial cannibalism, they should ponder the reasons that McCurdy insists that the Donner disaster still retains “contemporary significance.” Because “family structure was an important determinant of mortality” for the Donner Party, modern Americans may be able to “improve survival” in the face of contemporary disasters through “measures to keep family groups intact.”[39] As they add up their diminished number of dollars, Americans should ponder the commitments of love and devotion that motivated the selfless intra-family assistance of Donner Party survivors. These are the commitments that safeguard wedlock and family. These commitments are, finally, the most important outcome of a robust home economy. They are not available in the cash economy, regardless of what happens to the Dow. These commitments are indeed priceless in a sense that will never be captured in a tag line for advertisements hawking Visa cards. It is these commitments that Americans must recover if they are to give real substance to their lives, whether in the straits of economic disaster or in the comfort of prosperity.

Dr. Christensen, editor-at-large of The Family in America, teaches writing and literature at Southern Utah University.



  1. “Divorces Drop in Economic Downturn Say Nation’s Top Divorce Lawyers,” U.S. Newswire, November 17, 2008.
  2. Martha Minow, “How Should We Think About Child Support Obligations?” in Irwin Garfinkel et al., Fathers Under Fire: The Revolution in Child Support Enforcement (New York: Russell Sage, 1998), pp. 304-05.
  3. Jed H. Abraham, “The Divorce Revolution Revisited: A Counter-Revolutionary Critique,” Northern Illinois Law Review 9 (1989): 263–95.
  4. Steven L. Nock, “Marriage as a Public Issue,” The Future of Children 15 (2005): 19–20.
  5. See Sanders D. Korenman and David Neumark, “Does Marriage Really Make Men More Productive?” Finance and Economics Discussion Series, Division of Research and Statistics, Federal Reserve Board, No. 29, 1988.
  6. Janet Wilmoth and Gregor Koso, “Does Marital History Matter? Marital Status and Wealth Outcomes Among Preretirement Adults,” Journal of Marriage and Family 64 (2002): 254–68.
  7. Paul Henman and Kyle Mitchell, “Estimating Cost of Contact for Non-Resident Parents: A Budget Standards Approach,” Journal of Social Policy 30 (2001): 495–520, 517.
  8. Dina ElBoghdady, “Congress is Set to Limit Down-Payment Assistance Programs,” The Washington Post, July 22, 2008 p. D1.
  9. Daniel T. Lichter, Deborah Roempke Graefe, and J. Brian Brown, “Is Marriage a Panacea? Union Formation Among Economically Disadvantaged Unwed Mothers,” Social Problems 50 (2003): 60–86.
  10. Allan C. Carlson, From Cottage to Work Station: The Family’s Search for Social Harmony in an Industrial Age (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993), pp. 1–2.
  11. Arland Thornton, “Reciprocal Influences of Family and Religion in a Changing World,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 47 (1985): 382.
  12. Pitirim A. Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics: A Study of Change in Major Systems of Art, Truth, Ethics, Law and Social Relationships, rev. and abridged ed. (1957; rpt. New Brunswick: 1985), p. 700.
  13. Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point, 1990), pp. 180–81.
  14. Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), pp. 164–66.
  15. Reuben Gronau, “Home Production—A Forgotten Industry,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 62 (1980): 408–16.
  16. John Devereux and Luis Locay, “Specialization, Household Production, and the Measurement of Economic Growth,” The American Economic Review 82 (1992): 399–403.
  17. See National Institute of Child Health and Human Development / Early Child Care Research Network, “Does Amount of Time Spent in Child Care Predict Socioemotional Adjustment During the Transition to Kindergarten?” Child Development 74 (2003): 976–1005.
  18. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “If We Are So Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy?” American Psychologist 54 (1999): 821–27.
  19. Allan Carlson, “Illusions of Prosperity,” Society, November-December 1999, pp. 46–47.
  20. See Marjorie A. Pett et al., “Paths of Influence of Divorce on Preschool Children’s Psychosocial Adjustment,” Journal of Family Psychology 13 (1999): 145–64.
  21. Lorraine Davies, “Significant Life Experiences and Depression Among Single and Married Mothers,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (1997): 294–309.
  22. Corey L. M. Keyes, “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43 (2002): 207–22.
  23. Hilde Mausner-Dorsch and William W. Eaton, “Psychosocial Work Environment and Depression: Epidemiologic Assessment of the Demand Control Model,” American Journal of Public Health 90 (2000): 1765–70.
  24. Allan V. Horwitz, Helene Raskin White, and Sandra Howell-White, “Becoming Married and Mental Health: A Longitudinal Study of a Cohort of Young Adults,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (1997): 895–907.
  25. Andrew J. Cherlin, “Going to Extremes: Family Structure, Children’s Well-Being, and Social Science,” Demography 36 (1999): 421–28.
  26. Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure and Child Well-Being: The Significance of Parental Cohabitation,” Journal of Marriage and Family 66 (2004): 351–67.
  27. John G. Guidubaldi and Helen Cleminshaw, “Divorce, Family Health, and Child Adjustment,” Family Relations 34 (1985): 35–41.
  28. American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on the Family, “Family Pediatrics,” Pediatrics 111 Supplement (2003): 1541–53.
  29. James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), pp. 211–20.
  30. Cynthia C. Harper and Sara S. McLanahan, “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14 (2004): 369–97; Stacey Nofziger and Don Kurtz, “Violent Lives: A Lifestyle Model Linking Exposure to Violence to Juvenile Violent Offending,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 42 (2005): 3–26; Steven Hope, Chris Power, and Bryan Rodgers, “Does Financial Hardship Account for Elevated Psychological Distress in Lone Mothers?” Social Science and Medicine 49(1999): 1637–49; Louisa H. Tan and Julie A. Quinlivan, “Domestic Violence, Single Parenthood, and Fathers in the Setting of Teenage Pregnancy,” Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (2006): 201–07; Carl L. Bankston III and Min Zhou, “Social Capital as Process: The Meanings and Problems of a Theoretical Metaphor,” Sociological Inquiry 72 (2002): 285–317; Marcia J. Carlson, “Family Structure, Father Involvement, and Adolescent Outcomes,” Journal of Marriage and Family 68 (2006): 137–54.
  31. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, “Welfare Doesn’t Shore Up Traditional Family Roles,” Social Research 55 (1988): 631–47.
  32. D. G. Schramm, “Individual and Social Costs of Divorce in Utah,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 21 (2006): 133–51.
  33. Benjamin Scafidi, “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States” (New York: Institute for American Values, 1998).
  34. See John W. Santrock, “Father Absence, Perceived Maternal Behavior, and Moral Development in Boys,” Child Development 46 (1975): 753–57.
  35. Randal D. Day and Wade C. Mackey, “Children as Resources: A Cultural Analysis,” Family Perspective 20 (1985): 258–62.
  36. David T. Ellwood, “Anti-Poverty Policy for Families in the Next Century: From Welfare to Work—and Worries,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 14 (2000): 187–98.
  37. Wald qtd. in William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932–1972 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), 1:48.
  38. Stephen A. McCurdy, “Epidemiology of Disaster: The Donner Party (1846–1847),” Western Journal of Medicine 160 (1994): 338–42.
  39. Ibid.

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