November 27, 2013

Elite concern about broken homes: Changes over time

We've seen the historical patterns for both divorce rates and rates of children growing up in single parent households. How does elite concern for these social ills respond, or not, to their changes over time?

The following graphs all show how common a certain phrase is within Google's digitized library of books (Ngram), using the American English texts up through 2008, and beginning in either 1900 or 1950, whenever the phrase is about to take off. These are both fiction and non-fiction, so divorce could be part of the background in a novel, or a social scientific investigation, or a journalistic overview. Whatever the source, they all spring from an elite concern, although some are targeted toward a popular audience, and others toward their fellow elite members.

The main thing that they show is when the elite of the society actually gave a damn about a huge social problem, showing that they felt more like stewards of the less fortunate, and not shoulder-shruggers promoting a "dog eat dog" morality.

First, "divorce":

There's a secular rise in concern, reflecting the secular rise in the problem itself. However, there are clear cycles around that, and they reflect the crime rate (delayed by roughly 5 years). There's a peak in the late '30s (after the 1933 peak in the homicide rate), a low point in the early '60s (after the 1958 minimum in homicide), and another peak around '93 or '94 (after the 1992 peak in homicide), falling since (along with homicide).

As I've detailed for several years now, a rising-crime atmosphere makes people notice that things seem to be going wrong in the world, that the powers that be are too incompetent, impotent, or corrupt to fix things, and hence that we have to work together to help ourselves through this mess. A falling-crime atmosphere does the reverse: problems seem to be getting better and better, that must be because the powers that be have suddenly become omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, and hence we don't need to care much about helping one another through life's troubles anymore.

Divorce is just one example of that broader pattern.

How about during the time period of skyrocketing rates of children of divorce? Remember that the early '60s birth cohorts showed the first steep rise of being a child of divorce or of a never-married single parent by age 16, meaning the divorce probably struck during the early or mid 1970s. And unlike the divorce rate (which turned down after 1980), the rate of children in single parent households has only grown or steadied since then.

There are several relevant examples, but they rise only until the early-to-mid 1990s, and have fallen dramatically since, where they ought to have continued to rise or at least plateau. These cases all show an interaction between the rate of the problem itself and how likely the elites were to pay attention to it. That is, they paid attention as they should have during the rising-crime period, but have tuned out for no good reason during the falling-crime period. This echoes the result from "divorce," only it's now about children of divorce.

"Children of divorce":

"Dysfunctional families":

"Single mothers":

"Single parent household":

How, if at all, did elites show concern when there was less and less of a problem to be addressing? That appears to have been mostly during the Great Compression of circa 1920 to 1970. Rates of being raised in single parent households was the lowest for those born in the late Silent Generation and early half of the Baby Boomers. As you can see above, none of the phrases rose then. However, they had a different phrase for the phenomenon...

"Broken homes":

That shows an almost perfect match with the cycle in status one-upsmanship, inequality, over-production of elites, etc., that Peter Turchin has been describing and explaining. It was the heyday of liberal welfare policies, liberal social science (always with policy implications), and of elites generally seeing their role in society as stewards.

The metaphor "broken home" serves to shame selfish parents away from what is obviously a social evil, but something that the parents might be able to rationalize away without shame bearing down on them. It packs a punch unlike "dysfunctional family," "children of divorce," or "single parent household." For all we know, the phrase began at the grassroots level to shame divorcing parents in people's own communities, and the elites just took the phrase and ran with it in the national media and literature. Whoever started it, though, the point remains about how powerful the stigma was in doing its job.

Did elites tie it in with their broader plan to contain or de-fuse the societal instability that had reached a fever pitch in the late 1910s and early '20s? They sure did. I browsed through the NYT archives, and "broken homes" was typically used to describe a background cause for another phrase we haven't heard in forever -- "juvenile delinquency." A life of crime and vice will only widen the gap between rich and poor (and lead to greater instability too), so the elite stewards not only tried to contain the top from striving ever upwards, but also to keep the bottom from sinking themselves into the depths.

Nothing could be further from the mood of today or of the Gilded Age, when you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn't break the law. Who cares if it ruins communities -- that's not against the law, is it? So the robber barons and elite strivers can indulge as much as they please in their wasteful contests of conspicuous consumption, while the poor are given a free pass to indulge in the "sporting" culture of booze, gambling, and brothels. The re-emergence of "chav" culture in England, and whatever it's called here in America, show how far we've returned to the norms of the Gilded Age.

I was struck by the tenor of those NYT articles from the 1950s, where a broken home was often described as a "tragedy" or "tragic," and moreover as "preventable" -- meaning if you parents get divorced after we warn you, you're guilty of causing a preventable tragedy. They placed no blame at all on the children, even ones who had turned to a life of urban crime. They were instead "victims of broken homes." And "juvenile delinquent" sounds pretty anodyne compared to the harsh condemnation of the parents' behavior above.

Nowadays, we sort of blame the parents, but only for not acting like proper helicopter parents and constantly monitoring their kids' behavior. We don't condemn them for raising their kids without both parents around, though -- they get a pass for that. We're much more severe in judging the kid -- send that little punk to the electric chair! Or if he didn't murder somebody but only got caught buying drugs, still, lock him up!

I'm getting into a separate post now about attitudes toward crime and punishment, rather than divorce, so I'll stop there and save that for another time.


  1. When I hear the phrase "dysfunctional family" my first association is "sitcom". Or maybe a movie. I have heard some say that the phrase was originally used to describe households headed by an alcoholic.

    It was my understanding that public attitudes toward crime have gotten more lax, with lower support for the death penalty, for example.

  2. Off-topic, but since you've previously discussed temporal trends in film quality this is provocative. Handy claims 2013 might be the best year for movies, considering its natural rivals to be 1939 (with nods to 1940 & 1941), the "second Golden Age" of 1967-1974, 1982 (which Handy considers idiosyncratic on his part) and 1994.


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