March 23, 2011
By SABRINA TAVERNISE and ROBERT GEBELOFF
SIOUX COUNTY, Iowa — In the 1970s, the divorce rate was so low in this rural northwest Iowa County that it resembled the rest of America in the 1910s. Most of its 28,000 residents were churchgoers, few of its women were in the work force, and divorce was simply not done.
So it is a bitter mark of modernity that even here, divorce has swept in, up nearly sevenfold since 1970, giving the county the unwelcome distinction of being a standout in this category of census data.
Divorce is still less common here than the national average, but its sharp jump illustrates a fundamental change in the patterns of family life.
Forty years ago, divorced people were more concentrated in cities and suburbs. But geographic distinctions have all but vanished, and now, for the first time, rural Americans are just as likely to be divorced as city dwellers, according to an analysis of census data by The New York Times.
“Rural families are going through this incredible transformation,” said Daniel T. Lichter, a sociology professor at Cornell University.
The shifts that started in cities have spread to less populated regions — women going to work, gaining autonomy, and re-arranging the order of traditional families. Values have changed, too, easing the stigma of divorce.
“In the bottom ranks, men have lost ground and women have gained,” said June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-author of “Red Families v. Blue Families.”
“A blue-collar guy has less to offer today than he did in 1979,” Professor Carbone added. Those shifting forces, she said, “create a mismatch between expectation and reality” that can result in women becoming frustrated and leaving, because now they can.
Since 1990, class has become an increasingly reliable predictor of family patterns, Professor Carbone said. College-educated Americans are now more likely to get married and stay married than those with only a high school diploma, a change from 20 years ago, she said, when differences were much smaller.
That trend has been particularly important for rural areas, which have fallen further behind urban ones in education, according to census data. Just one in six rural residents have college degrees, far fewer than in cities, where one in three do. Nationally, there were about 121 million married adults and 26 million divorced people in 2009, compared with about 100 million married and 11 million divorced people in 1980.
Education drew a dividing line for Nancy Vermeer, a 52-year-old resident of Sioux County. She had married her high school sweetheart, a young man from a farming family. He never went further than high school, but she went on to college, and later earned a master’s degree. He worked in a window factory. She became a music teacher. He gambled. They grew apart. Eventually, he asked for a divorce.
“I grew more confident,” Ms. Vermeer said. “We were totally different people.”
When Ms. Vermeer divorced in 2002, she became the first teacher in her Christian school to do so. Divorce was more common than it had been in past decades, but she still felt judged, so she developed habits to keep a low profile, like going to the grocery when no one she knew would be there.
“There’s a perception here that you need to be perfect,” said the Rev. John Lee, a young pastor who has tried to encourage change in Sioux County by taking on taboo topics like divorce and mental illness in his sermons.
“Cars are washed, lawns are mowed in patterns and children are smiling,” Mr. Lee added. “When you admit weakness, you invite shame.”
The reason can be traced to Sioux County’s roots. About 80 percent of residents, most of whom are descendants of Dutch immigrants, belong to a major denomination church, compared with 36 percent of all Americans.
Its main city, Sioux Center, issued its first liquor license in the late 1970s. Stores were closed on Sundays for decades, and women’s participation in the work force was far below the national average.
Very few people divorced. In 1980, there were more than 52 married people for every divorced person, according to census data, a rate not seen on a national level since the 1930s.
Craig Lane, a divorce lawyer from the area, described the county’s conservative nature like this: “If steam is coming from your dryer vent on Sunday, you’ll hear about it from your neighbor.”
Time has worn away some of its old values. These days, Sioux Center looks more like a suburb than a village. There is a McDonald’s and a mall, where residents shop to the sound of Christian music. Women’s lives have changed too. More women than men have college degrees, and there are now just 14 married people to every divorced person.
“As we get more education we get more confidence and more income,” Ms. Vermeer said, “women are saying, ‘Look, she finally had the guts to stand up and walk out.’ ”
Sioux Center might be rural, but it is relatively affluent, buoyed by a biotech industry and a stable manufacturing base. Its Christian college, Dordt, is a major presence.
But for less fortunate places, social change is laced with a bitter new economic reality. Brian Janssen, the pastor at the church in Hospers, east of Sioux Center, speaks wistfully about an earlier time, when families were closer and more tied to the land. Now, he can count on one hand the number of young people from his church who have stayed in town.
“The community begins to become like senior housing,” Mr. Janssen said. “Dialysis center, old person living.”
Less educated Americans are far more likely to have babies while unmarried — and to divorce — than those with college degrees, Professor Carbone said.
That trend, once seen as a symptom of urban poverty, has now caught on in rural areas like this one. Leesa McNeil, a court administrator for a district that covers a wide area of northwest Iowa, said that custody cases involving unmarried people used to be so rare that the court did not even have a category for them.
“That was a phenomenon that smacked us 10 years ago,” Ms. McNeil said.
Maria Kefalas, a sociology professor at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and co-author of “Hollowing Out the Middle,” a 2009 book about the migration of the educated class from rural Iowa, said that changes in families have been profound. She noted that the alarm sounded by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965 about the rise of out-of-wedlock births among African-Americans applies to the country as a whole today: One in three babies is born to unmarried parents.
“It has hit the whitest, most married, most idyllic heart of America — Iowa,” Professor Kefalas said. “The cultural narrative about marriage — you get a job, you marry your sweetheart, you buy a house, you educate your kids — has been torn to shreds. Without that economic foundation, the story cannot support itself.”
In Sioux County, Ms. Vermeer has remarried. She is happy, she said, and her life makes sense.
“I think women were very miserable for very many years, and that’s changing,” she said. “Things are not so black and white. There are so many gray areas.”
Sabrina Tavernise reported from Sioux Center, and Robert Gebeloff from New York.