Tag Archives: divorce

Marriage, divorce, remarriage, age, education (Coontz tabs edition)

Stephanie Coontz has an excellent Op-Ed on the front of today’s New York Times Sunday Review, which draws out the implications for family instability of the connection between increasing gender equality on the one hand, and increasing economic inequality and insecurity on the other. The new instability is disproportionately concentrated among the population with less than a college degree. To help with her research, I gave Stephanie the figure below, but it didn’t make the final cut. This shows the marriage history of men and women by education and age. She wrote:

According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.

I highlighted those numbers in the figure. Also striking is the higher percentage of divorced people among those with less than a BA degree (and higher widowhood rates). Click to enlarge: age marriage history Cross-posted on the Families As They Really Are blog.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Most people marrying over age 35 have been married before

Among people who got married in the past year, more than half of those ages 35-44 had been married before. For those ages 45 and older, only 21% are marrying for the first time — and almost 30% have been married twice (or more).


Source: My analysis of ACS data from IPUMS.org.



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Different divorce rates

Deadline crush, not getting out the posts I want to. So here instead is one thing I was planning to write about but didn’t really yet.

Photo by Dan Bluestein from Flickr Creative Commons

What’s the rate? Photo by Dan Bluestein from Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve written about divorce quite a bit on here, including on the mess of our official statistics. Now Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles have a (paywalled) paper in the January issue of Demography called, “Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980–2010.” Because of the paywall and the obscure academic journal, I thought I had some time to write about it, but it’s been reported on Wonkblog and and other places, so no point in waiting.

The headline is, “divorce is actually on the rise.” It’s risen when they age-standardize the trend, but it’s complicated: “Divorce rates have doubled over the past two decades among persons over age 35. Among the youngest couples, however, divorce rates are stable or declining.” The interpretation is not as simple as, “they have a better measure.”

Meanwhile, I was quoted in a Wall Street Journal story about some TV show, and I let slip my multiple-decrement lifetable version of the current divorce rate. This hasn’t been finished, much less peer-reveiwed, but I’m pretty confident about the basic result. I wrote to the reporter, who asked me for the divorce rate:

As for divorce rates, it’s hard to be definitive because there is no one answer. One answer is: In 2012 there were 19 divorces for every 1000 people who were married (my calculation from the 2012 ACS).

However, what most people want to know is what percentage of people who get married will end up getting divorced. There is no official estimate of this because it involves a guess about the future. We can estimate divorce like we estimate life expectancy — it’s not the actual prediction of how long people will live, it’s how long they would live on average if they lived through the risks of most recent year over and over again their whole lives. (Technically, it’s a projection, not a prediction.) Anyway, using that method, I estimate that about 50% of couples who married in 2012 would eventually divorce (with the rest of the marriages ending with someone’s death).

In her story, of course, that became, simply, “And about half of those who married in 2012 will eventually divorce.”

This method, which I got from this old Sam Preston paper, combines mortality rates and death rates to project how many people are lucky enough to die before divorcing at current rates. (Hence “multiple-decrement,” the demographers’ dry way of saying, “there are only two ways out of this.”) When he applied the method, with much cruder data from 1973, incidentally, he got a 43% divorce rate, which was much higher than the rates floating around at the time, and would have made big news in the blogosphere if there had been one.

More on this eventually.


Filed under In the news

Silver linings divorce trend

In yesterday’s LA Times story on my divorce paper, reporter Emily Alpert Reyes and her editors focused on the rebound, headlining it, “Divorces rise as economy recovers, study finds.” I had been focused on whether the drop from 2008 to 2009 could really be attributed to the recession. Their decision made good journalistic as well as analytical sense. (The story was re-written by the websites Daily Mail, PBS Newshour, and Huffington Post.)

So what does the increase say about the “silver linings” interpretation of the divorce trend? That was the idea, pitched by Brad Wilcox, that the drop he observed in 2008 from 2007 (using vital statistics data) reflected the fact that “many couples appear to be developing a new appreciation for the economic and social support that marriage can provide in tough times.” There was, and is, no evidence for this that I am aware of.

I think that the rebound in divorce undermines the silver linings theory. However, I can’t swear the theory is wrong. It hasn’t been tested.

But when I was Googling for stories on this yesterday I found this 2009 CBS news report, which accidentally illustrates the problem with silver linings. The story was called “Recession Bright Spot? Divorce Rate Drops.” It featured the Levines, in which the husband lost his job, and the marriage suddenly was in trouble (like a block building suddenly collapsing):

cbs-divorceThen, the couple pulls together, and it looks like they’re going to make it: “If they can get through this, they can get through just about anything.”

The story was a Wilcox plant, featuring him saying, “What we’re seeing is some people are postponing divorce because home values have dropped. For others, the recession has led to a new sense of togetherness.” (In my paper, incidentally, divorce was more common in states with higher foreclosure rates.)

And the reporter noted, as evidence, “There were almost 20,000 fewer divorces in 2008 than 2007.” As I noted at the time, divorce fell at least that much in most years, so that’s meaningless manipulation of reporters’ demographic ignorance by Wilcox. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, this couple was doing fine before the recession! So the recession caused him to lose his job, and then their marriage was in trouble, and then they pulled through. So how, exactly, was the recession reducing divorce?

And yet my analysis shows the recession probably did reduce divorce in the aggregate (just not in their case). My suspicion remains that the recession increased stress and conflict within marriages, like CBS’s couple. It probably raised the Levines’ odds of divorce, even if not quite up to 1.0. There is just a lot of evidence at the individual level that job loss increases the odds of divorce (here are three studies). Lots of people — and relationships — had to have been made miserable by the recession.

If that is true, then was the drop in divorce rates good or bad? Was it a silver lining? You have to think about the continuum of marriages — from happy to sad — and who is affected. People who are bouncing around between kinda happy and kinda sad aren’t likely considering the cost of a lawyer yet. Not like those that have hit bottom. But if the cost of divorce — legal fees, real estate, relocation, or whatever — actually delays or forestalls some divorces, it’s probably the ones that are closest to actually occurring for which the outcome changes. That is, the almost-most miserable marriages.

If the recession made more people miserable, and yet fewer got divorced, divorce was more selective. Think of grant funding: when times are tight, more people apply but fewer are funded, so the ones that do are the best of the best (ideally). And the number of good ones not funded goes up. With marriages in a recession, more are miserable, yet the bar for divorcing is raised (or lowered) by the costs relative to income. So there are more miserable marriages not ending in divorce. Obviously, God thinks this is good, because he has no patience for our petty divorce excuses (which explains Wilcox’s interpretation).

One obvious possibility is that family violence increases when more miserable marriages produce fewer divorces. There was a spike in intimate partner violence in 2008 and 2009, the years men’s unemployment rates jumped. (We will address this and related issues at an American Sociological Association special session this year.)

It is very common, yet wholly unjustified, to always assume falling divorce rates are good. As I argued before: We simply do not know what is the best level of divorce to maximize the benefits of good marriage while mitigating the harms caused by bad marriage.


Filed under In the news

Divorce drop and rebound: paper in the news

My paper on divorce and the recession has been accepted by the journal Population Research and Policy Review, and Emily Alpert Reyes wrote it up for the L.A. Times today. The paper is online in the Maryland Population Research Center working paper collection.


Married couples promise to stick together for better or worse. But as the economy started to rebound, so did the divorce rate.

Divorces plunged when the recession struck and slowly started to rise as the recovery began, according to a study to be published in Population Research and Policy Review.

From 2009 to 2011, about 150,000 fewer divorces occurred than would otherwise have been expected, University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen estimated. Across the country, the divorce rate among married women dropped from 2.09% to 1.95% from 2008 to 2009, then crept back up to 1.98% in both 2010 and 2011.

To reach the figure of 150,000 fewer divorces, I estimated a model of divorce odds based on 2008 data (the first year the American Community Survey asked about divorce events). Based on age, education, marital duration, number of times married, race/ethnicity and nativity, I predicted how many divorces there would have been in the subsequent years if only the population composition changed. Then I compared that predicted trend with what the survey actually observed. This comparison showed about 150,000 fewer than expected over the years 2009-2011:


Notice that the divorce rate was expected to decline based only on changes in the population, such as increasing education and age. That means you can’t simply attribute any drop in divorce to the recession — the question is whether the pace of decline changed.

Further, the interpretation that this pattern was driven by the recession is tempered by my analysis of state variations, which showed that states’ unemployment rates were not statistically associated with the odds of divorce when individual factors were controlled. Foreclosure rates were associated with higher divorce rates, but this didn’t hold up with state fixed effects.

So I’m cautious about the attributing the trend to the recession. Unfortunately, this all happened after only one year of ACS divorce data collection, which introduced a totally different method of measuring divorce rates, which is basically not comparable to the divorce statistics compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics from state-reported divorce decrees.

Finally, in a supplemental analysis, I tested whether unemployment and foreclosures were associated with divorce odds differently according to education level. This showed unemployment increasing the education gap in divorce, and foreclosures decreasing it:

Microsoft Word - Divorce PRPR-revision-revision.docx

Because I didn’t have data on the individuals’ unemployment or foreclosure experience, I didn’t read too much into it, but left it in the paper to spur further research.

Aside: This took me a few years.

It started when I felt compelled to debunk Brad Wilcox’s fatuous and deliberately misleading interpretation of divorce trends — silver lining! — at the start of the recession, which he followed up with an even worse piece of conservative-foundation bait. Unburdened by the desire to know the facts, and the burdens of peer review, he wrote in 2009:

judging by divorce trends, many couples appear to be developing a new appreciation for the economic and social support that marriage can provide in tough times. Thus, one piece of good news emerging from the last two years is that marital stability is up.

That was my introduction to his unique brand of incompetence (he was wrong) and dishonesty (note use of “Thus,” to imply a causal connection where none has been demonstrated), which revealed itself most egregiously during the Regenerus affair (the full catalog is under this tag). Still, people publish his un-reviewed nonsense, and the American Enterprise Institute has named him a visiting scholar. If they know this record, they are unscrupulous; if they don’t, they are oblivious. I keep mentioning it to help differentiate those two mechanisms.

Check the divorce tag and the recession tag for the work developing all this.

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Divorce recession drop rebound, with the 2012 rate

Note: Technical addendum added.

The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey is the best annual national data source for marital events. The 2012 data came out recently, and I don’t believe anyone else has published a divorce rate for 2012. The refined divorce rate – the number of divorces per 1,000 married people – was 19.0 in 2012. Here is the trend since the ACS starting counting divorces:


What does this mean? It’s a shame the ACS didn’t start counting marital events till 2008, because it means we can’t put that year’s high rate in context. Was it (a) a spike up, suggesting divorce was a leading indicator for the recession; (b) part of a consistent decline, suggesting the the years since have been a pretty substantial increase from the historical trend; or, (c) a data anomaly.*

To put this in the context of the larger trend doesn’t really help answer the question, since we switched from vital records to a national survey, and had a decade with no national statistics in between:


So, it’s a mystery. My preferred interpretation is still that the recession caused a decline in divorces because disgruntled people were tied up in other crises, couldn’t sell their houses, or couldn’t afford to move out, followed by a rebound of accumulated divorces to our current level.

I published a working paper suggesting this [now forthcoming in Population Research and Policy Review], in which I use 2008 predictors of divorce and estimate that 4% fewer divorces occurred through 2011 compared to what would have been expected had the determinants of divorce not changed in the subsequent years.

My blog series on divorce includes previous reports on rates, and attempts to predict divorce rates using Google searches.

Technical addendum

To replicate my rates for 2012, you start here at the FactFinder, then get the number of married people by sex (ACS Table B12001) and the number of people who got divorced in the 12 months before the survey (ACS Table S1251) — you can enter the table numbers into the search box. There is a slight problem with this, however. Some people who say they got divorced in the past 12 months also say they are currently married (presumably remarried already). Those people are counted twice in the denominator of the FactFinder-based divorce rate — once as divorced people and once as currently married. If you download the public-use file and count those people only once in the denominator, the divorce rate rises by .02 per 1,000 (or 2 people per 100,000) — but this would not change the figures above at the level of precision reported. However, the public-use files produce slightly different estimates than the FactFinder files anyway, because the latter are based on the Census Bureau’s complete file not a subsample, so I use those even though they produce this tiny under-estimate of the divorce rate.

Secondly, what about the difference in divorce rates between men and women? This is a survey, not a vital records count, and there is no way to verify with the now-missing spouses whether they also consider themselves divorced. Maybe they weren’t legally married, or they didn’t really get legally divorced. So there are several possibilities: (a) lots of lesbian divorces, which is unlikely given the small number of lesbian marriages (but note we don’t know the sex of the spouse who is no longer in the household so we can’t distinguish homogamous from heterogamous divorces); (b) women are more likely to describe a breakup as a divorce for reasons unknown; (c) something funky with the survey weights (unweighted divorce rates from the public-use file also show the disparity, but it’s 20% smaller), or; (d) something funky with the sampling.

Who knows! If you are reading this and considering a new career — or a new direction in your existing career — consider becoming a family demographer and helping us figure it out.


Filed under In the news, Research reports

Baloney data detective: Wilcox school shooters edition

Another day, another Brad Wilcox really? moment.

This just in from W. Bradford Wilcox, writing in National Review Online:

Another shooting, another son of divorce. From Adam Lanza, who killed 26 children and adults a year ago at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn., to Karl Pierson, who shot a teenage girl and killed himself this past Friday at Arapahoe High in Centennial, Colo., one common and largely unremarked thread tying together most of the school shooters that have struck the nation in the last year is that they came from homes marked by divorce or an absent father. From shootings at MIT (i.e., the Tsarnaev brothers) to the University of Central Florida to the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., nearly every shooting over the last year in Wikipedia’s “list of U.S. school attacks” involved a young man whose parents divorced or never married in the first place.

That Wikipedia “list of U.S. school attacks” includes (as of this moment) all of nine school attacks in the last year from Sandy Hook to the present. Oddly, this does include the Tsarnaev brothers, who after allegedly blowing up the Boston Marathon also allegedly shot a security officer at MIT — apparently enough to get them on the Wikipedia list of school attacks. And yes, their parents did divorce — after they were 18 years old. Also on the list, one shooting that resulted from a fight between two acquaintances (parents’ marital status unknown); and a guy with serious mental health problems whose mother, who had schizophrenia, apparently was never married to his father. And in the latest shooting, in Arapahoe, the perpetrator’s parents were divorced.

What a minute, though. I know it’s crazy to nitpick something this ridiculous, but: why “school” shooters, instead of rampage killers in general? Could it be because recent rampage killers James HolmesJared Lee Loughner, and Jiverly Wong — the three worst rampage killers in the U.S. since April 2009 — and Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, all had married parents? Maybe divorce makes people shoot up schools specifically. Interesting!

Wait another minute.

That Arapahoe guy was described as a “dedicated, bright student from a religious family that attends Bible study meetings.” The Tsarnaevs also “turned to religion with mounting fervor” before becoming school shooters. The shooter who attacked Santa Monica College earlier this year reportedly attended Sunday school as a child. Of course, Newton shooter Adam Lanza attended Catholic school at the church where the family were parishioners. Excluding one shooting in which no one was killed except the perpetrator, and the one that was really just a school fight, that’s 4 out of 7 with a religious connection. Of course, since I haven’t ruled out a religious background in the others, that puts the link somewhere between 4/7 and 7/7, or “up to 100%.”


I won’t jump to conclusions from such sketchy data — who do you think I am, Brad Wilcox? — but I think we have enough data now to at least raise the hypothesis that religion causes divorce and school shootings (but not rampage killings in general).


Filed under In the news

Hell in a handbasket, or the democratization of divorce?

Two ways to look at the results of a new (paywalled) meta-analysis of studies on the educational gradient in divorce rates:

  • Across Europe, most in the liberal welfare states, the privileged access to divorce enjoyed by women with higher education has eroded across the last several decades.
  • Or, led by the welfare state, the liberation of women has progressively destroyed families further and further down the economic food chain.

The study combined many analyses of divorce rates and analyzed them together. The results for the Nordic countries were most pronounced. Here is the relationship between education and divorce in studies over the last 20 years (going down the chart). Dots to the right of the solid line indicate studies in which more educated women had higher odds of divorce, moving to the left means divorce is spreading to women with less education:


Studies now show a negative gradient, that is, women with less education have higher odds of divorce. The trend was in the same direction in most of Europe, but not as advanced. (In the U.S., incidentally, which was not included in the analysis, we have a curvilinear pattern, with the highest rates among the some-college population, and the lowest among those with advanced degrees. I have a preliminary paper here, and a subsequent version under review.)

Raising the question, how much divorce is the right amount? Some people treat divorce like child abuse — any amount is bad. But can’t we agree there was not enough divorce 50 years ago — meaning people who were in miserable marriages couldn’t get out of them? And, given it was concentrated among more privileged families, wasn’t that evidence of social class privilege? So, what’s the right balance? You might think no education effect is the best, with marriages equally likely to end in divorce regardless of social class. But what if the marriages of poor people have more problems, and they need or want divorce more?

The analysis further showed that the shift in the education gradient was correlated with the overall divorce rate (as divorce increased, it democratized) and with the labor force participation rate for women (the more employed women, the more divorce spread to the lower classes). Divorce laws had no effect.

We shouldn’t assume any increase in divorce is bad. Maybe it’s like living alone: the people who do it are often not happy with their situation, and it often means something has gone wrong for them, but having the option is better than not.


Filed under Research reports

Is the rising tide of falling crime driven by fatherlessness?

Kay Hymowitz, who sometimes works out of a PO Box rented by Brad Wilcox, writes in the LA Times (excerpting heavily):

As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that, although both girls and boys showed distress when their parents split up, they had different ways of showing it. …  Boys … “externalized” or “acted out”: They became more impulsive, aggressive and “antisocial.”… Boys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested. … And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems. … If the trends of the last 40 years continue — and there’s little reason to think that they won’t — the percentage of boys growing up with single mothers will keep growing. No one knows how to stem that tide.

Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?

In this graph I show the scales down to zero so you can see the proportional change in each trend: father-not-present boys ages 10-14 and male juvenile violent-crime arrest rates.


I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.

If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.


Filed under In the news

That economists’ paper about gender inequality, marriage and divorce

I was planning to write a note about this paper by economists, “Gender identity and relative income within households,” which got a lot of play two weeks ago. But I forgot about it until today, and then noticed that in the New York Times Catherine Rampbell, economics writer, dropped it in her story on the Pew Report about women as breadwinners. In the cautionary part of the article, Rampbell mentioned “A new working paper by economists” that showed:

…perhaps even more tellingly, couples in which the wife earns more report less satisfaction with their marriage and higher rates of divorce.

Maybe reporters like what’s new, or maybe it was just on her radar because she reads Freakonomics, the Economist or the Financial Times, which all uncritically wrote up the paper when it came out. But it’s really a shame in a story about current trends to cite a “new” paper which (for this part of its analysis) used data more than 20 years old. divorce-cartoon

Here is a brief critique I was going to give when the paper came out. Just taking two lines from the abstract, I offer a few suggestions:

1. Couple matching

The distribution of the share of household income earned by the wife exhibits a sharp cliff at 0.5, which suggests that a couple is less willing to match if her income exceeds his.

Suggestion: It’s not a good idea to use the relative incomes within couples years after they got married to discuss how relative income affects mate choice decisions. People move, change jobs, have children, etc., in the first few years after they get married. You need to look at income before marriage to study mate selection.

2. Divorce

Couples where the wife earns more than the husband are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce.

This part of the analysis uses data from Waves 1 & 2 of the National Survey of Families and Households NSFH), which were collected in 1987-88 and 1992-94. I don’t always insist that everyone use data from this minute, but at some point — around two decades — a study becomes historical. That judgment depends on the context and the question being asked. In this case, relative earnings of spouses (as we just saw in the Pew report) has seen an order-of-magnitude change over this period. And the paper is about norms! That is, the authors speculate that couples with high-earning wives divorce because they are outside the mainstream. So if, 20-25 years later, they’re not outside the mainstream anymore, the paper might not be salient.

Secondly, this is well-worn territory, and the specific hypothesis offered here has been tested and found wanting in several award winning papers using more thorough measures and testing competing hypotheses. (The NSFH, one of the most productive data collection efforts ever, maintained a bibliography up to 2004, which lists 180 papers under the category “union quality and stability.”) For those interested in the fuller story, I recommend these:

…[M]easures of marital commitment and satisfaction are better predictors of marital dissolution than measures of economic independence. This strongly suggests that the independence effect found in prior research, which did not include controls for marital quality, may have been measuring the role of wives’ economic independence in exiting bad marriages, not in exiting all marriages.

We find that when men are not employed, either husbands or wives are more likely to leave. When wives report better than average marital satisfaction, their employment affects neither their nor their husbands’ exits. However, when wives report below average marital satisfaction, their employment makes it more likely that they will leave.

…shifting into full-time employment is more likely for unhappily married than for happily married wives. … [C]ontrary to frequently invoked social and economic theories, wives’ full-time employment is associated with greater marital stability.

This provides a followup to a previous study using the same data which found…

…clear evidence that, at the individual level, women’s employment does not destabilize happy marriages but increases the risk of disruption in unhappy marriages.

The reason these marital satisfaction controls matter so much is that how happy women are within marriage affects their employment, and therefore their earnings. So what looks like an earnings effect is often an unhappy-marriage effect. Careful sequencing of longitudinal data (which these papers do) is required to sort this out.

I only mention the awards because I was shocked (shocked!) to see these major sociology papers in top journals, using the same dataset and asking the same questions, published over a decade, which have been cited hundreds of times in the academic literature, go unnoticed in this economics working paper, which — not-yet published, not-yet peer reviewed — would be quoted all over the place.


Filed under In the news, Research reports