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Souix County a divorce hotbed

SIOUX COUNTY, Iowa — In the 1970s, the divorce rate was so low in rural northwest Iowa 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 in Sioux County, divorce has swept in, up nearly sevenfold since 1970, giving Sioux 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.

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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," 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, 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."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. "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.

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