The following is a transcript of my radar on Tuesday’s edition of “Rising” on Hill TV.
On Monday, the New York Times ran a poignant essay under the headline, “A ‘Broken Home’ Didn’t Break Me, or My Kids.”
In it, famed memoirist Joyce Maynard recounts the very typical story of her divorce, reflecting back on all the pain and strife to share some happy news. When it comes to her children, “Despite the dire predictions that haunted me long ago, all three have made loving and committed relationships that have produced two grandchildren so far,” writes Maynard.
That is to say, the fear-mongering of reactionaries adjusting to the sexual revolution did not come to pass in her experience. Maynard doesn’t explicitly purport to be representative, and her Times essay is purely personal, with no data or generalized conclusions.
In that sense, the op-ed is merely the latest entry in the genre of elite myopia, where educated cultural arbiters use their platforms to normalize life choices their immense financial and social resources allow them to absorb with greater ease. Here we stumble into what Tim Carney has dubbed the “Lena Dunham Fallacy,” in which we see elites downplaying the importance of institutions like marriage while continuing to marry at higher rates than the working class. Carney defines it as “the tendency to attribute to decadent elites social phenomena really located among the working class.”
In “Alienated America,” Carney wrote, “The norm of marriage is dead not among our elites but among our working class. It’s not the Wesleyan alumnae living in Greenwich, Connecticut, who are killing the norm as much as it is the working-class men and women living in Middle America.” He goes on to crunch the data on marriage rates and economics, trying to find why, as David Author of MIT found, “losing factory jobs reduces the number of marriageable men.” Carney persuasively concludes destruction of community is the culprit.
So let’s return to Maynard. The New York Times is influential, producing articles with an enormous reach that show up in Facebook feeds and email chains and radio segments, stamped with an air of legitimacy — albeit a decaying one.
According to her website, Maynard “first came to national attention with the publication of her New York Times cover story, ‘An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life’, in 1972, when she was a freshman at Yale.”
“Since then,” the bio continues, “she has been a reporter and columnist for The New York Times, a syndicated newspaper columnist whose “Domestic Affairs” column appeared in over fifty papers nationwide, a regular contributor to NPR and national magazines including Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and many more.”
She’s written eighteen books, including a Times bestseller. She left Yale in the early ‘70s to carry on an affair with JD Salinger. When she reenrolled in 2019, Maynard’s decision was chronicled in a New Yorker profile.
In other words, her essay is a textbook example of the Lena Dunham fallacy’s consequences, as elites use their powerful platforms to normalize lifestyles that hit the working class much harder, people who generally lack the money and community to absorb the blows quite as breezily. Getting divorced as a journalist is different than getting divorced as a retail worker in rural Wisconsin or the inner city of Milwaukee — or as the children of those workers.
More importantly, the data show that Maynard’s experience is an outlier. David Leonhardt sought to summarize the research in a 2015 analysis for The Upshot. Here’s part of that article, which cites Autor again:
Boys who grow up with two parents seem to end up substantially stronger economically, according to a survey of the research by David Autor, an M.I.T. economist. Girls appear less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, according to another study. Among the reasons: Households with two parents tend to have more money and some less tangible benefits, including less stress, more involvement from grandparents and less unexpected change.
New research published just last month by the Institute for Family Studies led its authors to report, “What we can conclude is, consistent with a longstanding social scientific consensus about family structure, children are significantly more likely to avoid poverty and prison, and to graduate from college, if they are raised in an intact two-parent family.”
“This association remains true for both black and white children,” they added. “In the vast majority of cases, these homes are headed by their own married mother and father.”
I reached out to Brad Wilcox, one of the authors of that study, to get his thoughts on Maynard’s piece.
“When it comes to addressing some of the biggest challenges in America, from crime to school failure, our ruling class is silent regarding the elephant in the room: the Family Factor,” he told me.
“Guess what factor is more important than money and race when it comes to avoiding prison and graduating from college? The family factor. Yet the impact of family structure is studiously avoided in the media, public schools and C-suites across America. No one wants to talk about the ultimate privilege: Being raised by your own two parents,” he said.
He’s right. It’s the ultimate privilege and the Ivy Leaguers at the Times don’t want to touch it. We know two-parent households help children avoid poverty and prison, but the Times and the rest of the corporate media are content to keep running flowery essays from celebrated white memoirists that normalize arrangements hurting working-class kids.
I’m happy things seem to have worked out for Maynard and her kids, but the Times continues to cluelessly amplify the voices of elites at the expense of the working class. And not just because it publishes the economics of Bret Stephens and Paul Krugman.
Again, Carney makes sense of all this. “Working-class people are getting married less and are earning less. Behind both of these phenomena is weaker community,” he wrote in Alienated America. “It’s not a question of genes — that some men are just naturally better at marriage and earning than others — but instead a question of environment. Some places have less social capital and fewer strong families, which in turn makes it harder for the people in those places to make good money or build families.”
The decline of social capital can’t be blamed squarely on liberal elites. Workers have agency and a lot of us across the class divide are making bad decisions. But all those Republican donors who bankroll GOP lawmakers to construct an economy of cronyism while also steamrolling small towns with outsourcing and gig work deserve a hefty share of the blame too. What’s worse, is that they do it while paying lip service to the conservative ethics of “God, family, and country.”
“A hyper-individualized capitalism is currently taking us toward a world where workers are available when needed, but no lasting attachment is formed,” Carney warns. “Work can’t form an institution of civil society, because work is no longer a place or a company or colleagues — it’s a series of gigs.”
Shifting norms and laws when it comes to divorce has saved a lot of women and children from hostile and abusive homes. There’s no question about it. But single-parent households, whether through divorce or births out of wedlock, are hurting the working class much more than the wealthy people who write essays for the New York Times and can afford the pain.