The XX Factor

Only Caitlin Flanagan Could Make Mark Sanford Look Good

A guest post from Linda Hirshman:

With a cover story by working mother scourge Caitlin Flanagan, next week’s Time takes the occasion of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s staggeringly banal adultery to tell America that “Marriage Matters.”

Why does marriage matter? Not, of course, because of the harm to the deer-in-the-headlights brigade-Silda Wall Spitzer, Jenny Sanford, etc. That would put Flanagan on the side of the adult females.

Marriage matters, because single parent families are bad for children, the only people who count. “Drastically” bad: “on every single significant outcome … children from intact, two-parent families outperform those from single-parent households … If you can measure it, a sociologist has; and in all cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the others.”

OK, maybe poor people, more often single than their critics from the elite Flanagan class, have worse outcomes, but aren’t those problems more about, say, poverty than single parent families? And in fact sociologists have been looking for reliable data that sorts that out since the invention of sociology in the nineteenth century and as recently as 2005 .

But instead of looking at the recent work, Flanagan gives us her usual brew of autobiography (my parents’ fifty-year marriage, my husband’s caretaking), outmoded studies, and interviews with experts from right wing foundations such as David Blankenhorn, President of the Institute for American Values (and a loud spokesman against marriage for same sex people ), and Heritage’s Robert Rector.

Unbeknownst to Flanagan, in 2005, the centrist Brookings Institution published “Marriage and Child Well-Being ,” which included a report from Penn State’s Paul R. Amato on “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Next Generation.” Looking at a decade’s work, Amato reported “the results of individual studies vary considerably: Some suggest serious negative effects of divorce, others suggest modest effects, and yet others suggest no effects.” When Amato ran his own numbers, he concluded for example, that “if the share of adolescents living in two parent families returned to its 1970 level, it would have … a relatively small effect on the share of children experiencing these problems. In general, these findings, which are likely to disappoint some readers, are consistent with a broad, sociological understanding of human behavior.”

Broad sociological understanding or Flanagan’s autobiography, take your pick. Most children are raised by women. Given the state of marriage, most 21st-century American children are going to spend some time with single mothers. Everything else being equal, probably two parents are “modestly,” as Amato says, better. But the last thing Time should be doing is running another unsubstantiated, apocalyptic cover on the awful consequences of most American women’s fates. Remember Newsweek ’s “You’re more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a husband after the age of thirty-five?” Decades and infinite cultural damage later, they had to take it back. With the Internet, Time could just take it down.