Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

January 22,  2007  



Media distorts census data on single women

By Thomas F. Coleman

About two weeks ago the New York Times carried a sensational story declaring that most women in the United States are now living without a husband.  It was written by Sam Roberts who based his conclusions on an analysis of 2005 data from the Census Bureau.

While it is technically true that 51 percent of females are living in households without a husband present, Roberts' story is misleading in significant ways.

Roberts counted girls who are 15 to 17 years old in his calculations.  Without including these teenagers, the headline should have read: "Most women live with a spouse."  Such a story would have been so ordinary that it likely would not have been published.

He also counted women who were married but whose husbands were absent from the household.  That would include women whose husbands were in the military and assigned to bases overseas.

But because the story implied that, for the first time in American history, the majority of women were unmarried, it immediately caught the attention of other major news organizations.  Many ran Roberts' story but added their own headlines. 

The Dallas Morning News published Roberts' story with a headline that read: "Census data shows most American women unmarried."  The story ran in Oregon's Register Guard with a headline that pronounced "Majority of women in U.S. unmarried." 

United Press International released a news wire which declared "More Single Women in U.S. than Married."  This was picked up and repeated by news outlets in other countries.

In truth, the most recent data from the Census Bureau shows that a majority of American women are married. soon criticized the demographic distortions perpetuated by the media based on the New York Times story.  Peter Smith wrote a stinging commentary for this conservative website which severely attacked the New York Times.

Smith points out that a 2005 Census Bureau report entitled “Marital Status of the Population by Sex and Age”, shows that 60.4% of men and 56.9% of women over 18 years old are married.

How could the New York Times story be so at odds with the facts?

As Smith observes, Roberts created his own analysis of Census Bureau data "by including in his 51% figure of women living without a spouse: unmarried teenage and college girls still living with their parents, women whose husbands work out of town, are institutionalized, or are separated from husbands serving in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Smith was not the only conservative commentary to criticize the New York Times story.  Talk show host Michael Medved was fuming.

“It’s one of a series of articles the New York Times has run…playing games with numbers in a misleading and dishonest way, each one of them having the same point: marriage is over, marriage is finished, nobody wants to get married anymore, people are happier not getting married,” Medved told his radio listeners.

The Baptist Press contacted Robert Bernstein for the official word on the accuracy of the New York Times story and its implication that most women are not living with a husband.  Bernstein is the head of the Census Bureau's Public Information Office.

“If you use 18 and over as the threshold, this wouldn’t be the case,” Bernstein said. “A majority of women then would be married in a household.”

It is unfortunate that the New York Times exaggerated the facts about the percent of "women" living without a husband.  It is even more disturbing that so many other newspapers distorted the facts even further by running headlines declaring that most American women are single.

No one benefits from journalistic exaggerations or distortions.  They mislead the public and create an erosion of confidence in journalistic integrity and accuracy.

Having said that, I must point to a fact first reported by Column One last August.  More than 50 percent of American households are now headed by unmarried adults. 

So while the New York Times story may have ruffled some feathers, major demographic changes have occurred since 1950 when 78 percent of American households contained a married couple or since 1980 when about 61 percent of households were in the married category. 

The shift in household patterns from a married majority to an unmarried majority is undeniable.

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© Unmarried America 2006

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.