Divorce by race/ethnicity and education, 2010

Earlier this month I calculated that the divorce rate per 1,000 married people rose slightly from 2009 to 2010, but is still lower than it was in 2008. Now we have more information for 2010 from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.

NCFMR’s new release (in PDF) shows the divorce rate among women married for the first time, by race/ethnicity and education.

Just a quick update.

For my previous posts on divorce, follow the divorce tag.

That giant gobbling sound (is the 1% eating more and more of the cookies)

The Congressional Budget Office has a new report on trends in the income distribution. The big news is the 1%’s blitzkrieg assault on equality.

But it’s not just another rehash of Census numbers. Two adjustments they made seem especially good. First, they used a tricky matching method to combine Current Population Survey numbers (which do better at benefits and low-income households) combined with Internal Revenue Service data (which is better for high-end data). Second, they adjusted for household size and composition, and calculated distributions before and after taxes and transfers, and among different kinds of income.

The headline is the changing share of after-tax-and-transfer household income. Every group except the top 1% had a smaller share of income in 2007 than they did in 1979, or just an equal share in the case of the 81st-99th percentile group. That means the top quintile’s whole gain came in the top 1%.

That is very important. A source of outrage for the hundreds of thousands of Facebook users posting, commenting, or Liking Occupy Wall St. and its related pages.

It would be misleading, however, to view the chart as showing that incomes fell for the other groups. Income growth has been very skewed toward the top, but it is by no means confined to the top 1%. Here is my graph showing the income cutoffs for each quintile, and for the top slices separately. These are the bottom cutoffs in 1979 and 2007 (in inflation-adjusted dollars), with the percentage change in the backgrounded bars.

(Note there is no cutoff for the bottom quintile — the price of entry for that group is always $0).

Two thoughts about this.

1. Even if there were no 1%, if the graph only included the green bars, there would be plenty of increasing inequality for what might then be called “the 80%” to protest. The 81st-99th folks may be lucky to have the popular anger directed at the grotesque opulence of the sliver above them. (I’m not diminishing the 1%’s income gains, but as Matt Taibbi pointed out yesterday, the object of opposition is not just their income, but their influence.)

2. If you look at the families and networks of the top 1%, how many of them have relatives, friends, and even co-“workers” who are only in the top 10%? Would a self-respecting 1% family be appalled if their son married someone from a stable 5%-er family?

What I’m wondering is whether the 1% folks are merely a statistical convenience rather than a socially cohesive group (class?). That’s an empirical question that national income distributions can’t necessarily answer.

The CBO report is here, a summary is here, and the blog post version is here.

Gender integration’s lost decade

The 2000s were the worst decade for gender integration since the 1950s.

It’s not easy to track long-term trends in segregation, because our measurements are affected by the level of detail used to record occupation titles, by changes in the composition of the labor force, and by the type of measurement used. However, comparing one time point to another using the same data source and measurements is the safest bet. That’s what I have done for 2000 and 2010 (using Census data from 2000 and 2010).

A 2004 report by my old colleagues David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman last did that for 1950 to 2000, using a system of coding occupations according to the 1990 standard. I have graphed their results with my new calculations, which use the 2000 Census standards. Since these use new occupation definitions, and a greater number of occupations (more than 500), my segregation score is a little higher. But it’s the decade-to-decade changes I’m interested in.

This measure, called the index of dissimilarity, shows the percentage of men — or women — that would have to change occupations in order for every occupation to the have the same gender composition.

The graph clearly shows the declining pace of progress toward integration in the 1990s, compared with the 1970s and 1980s, and now we can see the 2000s showed slower progress still.  In the last decade, there just was a smidgen of change — just enough so that, if it continues at that pace, we will have complete gender integration… by the middle of the 26th century.

The picture in 2010

What does this level of segregation look like graphically? Here are two takes on that, using the 2010 Census data on about 500 occupations. First, I broke the workers up by gender and sorted them into occupations according to their percentage female (or 100-male). The histogram shows the distribution of men and women across 10 categories, and I labelled each category with the most numerous occupation it includes, such as truck drivers in the under-10% group, and secretaries in the 90+% group.

For another view, I lined up all the men and women by occupation from least-female to most-female, and traced their cumulative distributions. This shows the complete distribution for each group. I labeled some key points for comparison.


Why is there still so much segregation, and why has progress toward integration stalled? One thing to consider is education.

As I reported before, progress toward educational integration stalled in the 1990s. That is, even though women keep increasing their share of college degrees, progress toward integrating fields of study has completely stalled, and now even reversed. The segregation score between men and women, using the 35 fields of study reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, increased from 28 to 29 in the last decade.*

Here is the gender breakdown of the top 15 college majors in 1998-99 and 2008-09:

Notice how the most female-dominated majors — from English to the health professions — became even more female-dominated in the last decade. But overall it’s a picture of not much change in a decade. (For PhDs, see these charts.)

Much of the earlier progress toward integration has come because women increased their share of college graduates, for whom integration has been faster. But without more change in the distribution in majors, that source of progress may have run its course.

Another thing to consider is cultural attitudes.

In a new analysis of the General Social Survey (GSS), the Cotter et al. team turn their attention toward the trend in responses to questions about gender roles. They believe an antifeminist backlash has taken root, promoting motherhood under a pseudo-feminist rhetoric of “choice.”

The paper shows a clear pattern of stalled progress toward egalitarian attitudes on these four indicators of women’s role in politics, employment, household work, and caring for young children:

Trends in public attitudes are complicated. People are born and die, education levels rise, ethnic composition shifts, and so on. Unlike a simple poll like most in the news, the GSS includes lots of demographic and other information about its respondents, so analysts can try to sort it all out.

After testing for a variety of explanations for the trends, the authors conclude:

The lack of a ready structural or broadly ideological explanation of the mid-1990s shift strengthens the case for a specifically antifeminist backlash in the popular culture as the most likely explanation for the attitude shift…. We argue that the result has been not a reversion to the gender traditionalism of the 1950s but the rise of a third cultural frame of “egalitarian essentialism” combining support for stay-at-home mothering with a continued feminist rhetoric of choice and equality. We believe this cultural explanation is also consistent with the broader pattern of gender changes that also shifted in the mid-1990s.

Those changes include not only gender segregation, as we see more and more, but also employment levels, wages, political representation, and the division of housework.

It’s a compelling paper, essential reading for those with a research interest in gender inequality.

*Note: Those with advanced interests in gender segregation measures might like to know I also calculated the “size-standardized index” of dissimilarity for these education data, since some majors are much bigger than others. That measure looks worse, increasing from 35 to 38 over the decade.

Single parents, crime and incarceration

Sometimes a diagram is helpful to organize your thoughts.

A little while ago I commented that crime rates had fallen through the floor even though single parenthood is still on the rise, apparently contradicting a generation of conservative conventional wisdom that attributed rising crime rates to the decline of the nuclear family. In the graphs I showed a very strong positive relationship between crime and single parenthood from 1960 until 1991, after which the relationship was reversed.

In response, someone countered:

Your graphs on single-mother families and crime rates, and your accompanying commentary, conveniently miss any reference to the massive increase in incarceration since the 1980s … Were it not for the fact that this country has incarcerated more than a million men behind bars since the late 1980s, it is likely that the upward swing in single-motherhood & nonmarital childbearing would have been paralleled by an upward swing in crime.

I have written before about the family consequences of the drug war, focusing on how incarceration affects families, rather than on how (whether) family structure drives crime; as well as other aspects of the prison boom (such as giving birth in chains, distorted marriage markets, and how prisons contribute to the spread of HIV).

But I didn’t address the question of how incarceration may have saved us from a worsening crime wave driven by single parenting.

I still don’t have an answer, but I have some thoughts, which I have chosen to express in the form of a conceptual diagram, with references. Each of these links is at least plausible and at most conclusively shown by the research listed below. If I were to dig into this research, this is where I would start: an annotated free-association figure:

Click to enlarge the diagram.

From what I can see so far, it looks like incarceration causes single-parent families more than single-parent families cause crime. The numbered references are below. (Thanks to Chris Uggen for some leads.)

Work process aside: I love a good conceptual diagram. For working things out I can use one like the above. Ideally, though, you would already understand the thing at hand before you present one to others, to make things more clear. I like this classic one from James Coleman, illustrating Weber’s Protestant Ethic:

Unlike my random scattering, this uses the location of the nodes to simply convey the conceptual hierarchy — religion and capitalism as macro, values and behavior as micro, with each path a potentially observable process. The diagram also is intuitive because it shows time moving from left to right. And it’s simple — any less to it and there’s no need for a figure.

On the other hand, I guess a diagram could help keep things straight when they’re complicated, like this one, from “Toward an Integrated Theory of Gender Stratification,” by Randall Collins and colleagues:

References (with links that might hit pay walls)

1.  Demuth, S. and S. L. Brown. 2004. “Family structure, family processes, and adolescent delinquency: The significance of parental absence versus parental gender.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41(1):58-81. Schroeder, Ryan D., Aurea K. Osgood and Michael J. Oghia. 2010. “Family Transitions and Juvenile Delinquency.” Sociological Inquiry 80(4):579-604.

2. Charles, Kerwin K. and Ming C. Luoh. 2010. “Male Incarceration, the Marriage Market, and Female Outcomes.” Review of Economics and Statistics 92(3):614-627.

3. Childs, E. C. 2005. “Looking behind the stereotypes of the ‘angry black woman’ an exploration of black women’s responses to interracial relationships.” Gender & Society 19(4):544-561. Robnett, Belinda and Cynthia Feliciano. 2011. “Patterns of Racial-Ethnic Exclusion by Internet Daters.” Social Forces 89(3):807-828.

4. Dixon, T. L. and D. Linz. 2000. “Overrepresentation and underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos as lawbreakers on television news.” Journal of Communication 50(2):131-154.

5. Dixon, T. L. and K. B. Maddox. 2005. “Skin tone, crime news, and social reality judgments: Priming the stereotype of the dark and dangerous black criminal.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 35(8):1555-1570. Dixon, Travis L. 2008. “Network news and racial beliefs: Exploring the connection between national television news exposure and stereotypical perceptions of African Americans.” Journal of Communication 58(2):321-337.

6. Tonry, Michael. 2010. “The Social, Psychological, and Political Causes of Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Vol 39 39:273-312.

7. Pettit, Becky and Bruce Western. 2004. “Mass imprisonment and the life course: Race and class inequality in US incarceration.” American Sociological Review 69(2):151-169. Reiman, Jeffrey. 2007. The rich get richer and the poor get prison: ideology, class, and criminal justice. Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon. Wakefield, Sara and Christopher Uggen. 2010. “Incarceration and Stratification.” Annual Review of Sociology 36:687-406.

8. I made this argument in a recent blog post here. For a more thorough review of media depictions of single parents, see: Usdansky Margaret L. 2009. “A Weak Embrace: Popular and Scholarly Depictions of Single-Parent Families, 1900-1998.” Journal of Marriage And Family 71(2):209-225.

9. On conservative foundation support for traditional-family-is-good research, see a few of my posts here, here, here, and here.

10. Nagin Daniel S., Francis T. Cullen and Cheryl Lero Jonson. 2009. “Imprisonment and Reoffending.” Crime and Justice: A Review of Research 38:115-200.

Mid-course corrections

How do you know if it’s working?

Job-performance evaluations are the subject of many studies in the sociology of work and inequality (including a new article by Emilio Castilla in American Sociological Review). In the professoriate, the job evaluation process is all over the place — teaching evaluations, peer-review of research for publication, peer-review of grant applications, conference acceptances and invitations, reviews of books, awards, comprehensive reviews at promotion time.

Last week I got two decisions from peer-reviewed journals (both rejections), got a bunch of chapter reviews for my book from people who teach family sociology courses, and conducted informal evaluations in my undergraduate class. Each of these types of evaluation is useful. In reverse order, here’s how I think they are.

1. Informal course evaluations

A class of 57 students is small enough to have a discussion, but big enough for some people to never speak up. Before my midterm exam, when they still haven’t gotten much formal feedback from me except some quiz grades, I asked the students to answer three questions anonymously: favorite thing about the course so far, least favorite thing, and suggestions for improvement. (As suggested here.)

The answers ranged from “love the material, love sociology in general” to “can be a little boring when it’s just lecturing”; from “really enjoy the lectures, powerpoints, sense of humor 🙂 class is never boring” to “SO MUCH READING.” The bottom lines were nearly unanimous, however: More discussion and interaction, more video clips, and turn the lights up. Great advice, mission accomplished, course improved.

It’s hard to know what’s working in a class because, although I’ve been teaching “Families and Society” for five years at UNC, I change the material and readings every time, the students change all the time, and for all I know I change every time, too. Unless you repeat the same sequence with only specific changes, it’s hard to know which innovations produce which results. The mid-course evaluation helps make improvements right away and identify potential problems that people are reluctant to speak up about publicly.

2. Book chapter reviews.

The editor for the book I’m writing at W. W. Norton, Karl Bakeman, sends my chapters out for review as I draft them. We must have had a few dozen reviews so far. The ways these reviews differ exemplify why it’s hard to evaluate your own course: there are too many variables in play to compare them all and know what’s best. Each person compares my chapters with their own experience and knowledge, what and how they teach, and their own sociological perspectives. Imagine that, for each reviewer, there are at least three possible schemes: the way they used to do it, how they do it now, and how they’d like to do it. Then multiply that by the number of possible ways to organize the book and frame the subject matter.

What I hadn’t realized going into the process was how valuable these different views would be for trying to create the best possible book – and the best possible courses to come out of it. Not by taking everyone’s advice, but by weighing the range of opinions and interpretations. What’s hard about teaching one course may be a benefit to a book project that aims to improve many people’s courses.

3. Peer-reviewed research

Since I already have tenure — and even have my next job lined up — I can be philosophical about the journal rejections. Of the articles I’ve published, very few have been written by me alone, as these last two were. And each of them was a struggle, involving premature submission and outright rejection. My first drafts of journal articles are (to date) awful. And the revisions I do myself before submitting them for publication are not much better. I could protest, but the data to support this generalization are too clear. It’s not that the research or findings are found to be wrong (usually), but rather that the writing and framing aren’t clear, the cut corners are too glaring, and the ambition is overreaching. This pattern represents a substantial imposition on my peers, who volunteer to review this research, and I owe it to them to try to learn from this and do better.

Having also written a round of tenure review letters this year, I also know that there is pressure from some quarters to critically evaluate collaboration, to make sure each scholar makes an “independent” contribution and deserves individual recognition (in the form of lifetime job security). My own experience reinforces my tendency to downplay the risks of crediting people for collaborative work.

Marriage promotion, farce or fraud?

Sometimes I wonder if the National Marriage Project is just gaslighting me.

Did you know that married couples with children spend 50-times more on childcare than single adults without children? Well, if you didn’t you might not realize how good marriage is for “the economy.”

The other day I discussed a bizarre essay and the naive NPR report promoting it. I saved for today the additional contribution in the same Bradley Foundation-funded document by W. Bradford Wilcox and Kathryn Sharpe which claims that, “Strong, sustainable families pay long-term dividends to the entire economy.”

Unsurprisingly, the article provides no information about “strong, sustainable families” or “long-term dividends.” What it does is produce a simple table showing that married-couple-with-children households spend more on various things than single-childless households. If you’re thinking, “but there are more people in married-couple-with-children households,” then you may  already have done more thinking than the report’s authors.

To explain why this spending pattern occurs, they offer several reasons, the first of which is “household size.” Wait — you’re still thinking — if household size explains the difference in spending, then it’s not a difference in spending, it’s a difference in accounting, just pooling the spending of several people and calling it a spending increase. So how does this help “the economy”? Believe it or not, this is their reasoning:

To serve the needs of all the adults and children in their homes, they are more likely to buy many brands in bulk, from Bounty to Tide, and to fill their shopping carts at the local grocery store.

I must be doing something wrong, because I thought I spent less in the end when I bought in bulk.

The data abused in this report are from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, which is the authoritative source on household spending in the U.S., and used to calculate inflation. It’s something I’ve used before to study household spending (here and here). And if you use it, all I can say in a sentence is: you better account for household size, since all the spending is reported for households, not individuals.

To illustrate this, I took the data from their little table on (a) married-with-children households, and compared it with the sum of the spending for (b) childless-singles plus the (c) single parent households. If every adult needs one beer a day, and every child needs one glass of milk, then the level of spending in (a) and (b+c) should be the same, if they have the same number of children. This is not good science, but it’s appropriate for a blog-scale debunking. And the results:

This graph is for weekly expenses on small consumer items;* the graph for bigger ticket items looks about the same. If the dots fell along the dotted line, my beer-and-milk hypothesis would be supported. It’s pretty close — but tipping a little the way you would expect it to — toward bigger households spending less, since they have economies of scale (“buying in bulk”).

Anyway, the numbers are all junk. The more interesting question is: Is this farce or fraud? Maybe they really don’t know what they’re doing, in which case the foundation funding makes it a farce. Or maybe it’s fraud.** Maybe they are deliberately misleading the public, the foundation and the major corporations they are hoping will spend their “philanthropy” money on such “public education” projects, their actual recommendations!

Companies whose fortunes are linked to the health of the family, such as Procter & Gamble, spend billions of dollars each year on advertising. … Executives with oversight across brands should ask themselves a simple question: Do the messages used in our advertising make family life look attractive? Or do they exalt single living? Obviously, it’s in their long-term interest to do more of the former.

If you have another 3 minutes, consider watching this hilarious video they link to as an example of “family life = attractive.” It’s from Proctor & Gamble’s 75th anniversary in the Philippines (unless it’s a spoof, too), which includes images like this:

* cereal, baked goods, beef, pork, other meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, fresh fruit, fresh veggies, processed fruit, processed veggies, sweets, non-alch bevs, oils, misc. food, alchohol, tobacco, personal care products and services, and household products and services.

** colloquial use of the term “fraud” in this blogosphere context is not meant to express or imply legally criminal fraud.

Crying out for more babies

I don’t want to alarm any readers unnecessarily, but sometimes you have to just take the message straight. So here it is:

A turning point has occurred in the life of the human race. The sustainability of humankind’s oldest institution, the family—the fount of fertility, nurturance, and human capital—is now an open question. On current trends, we face a world of rapidly aging and declining populations, of few children—many of them without the benefit of siblings and a stable, two-parent home—of lonely seniors living on meager public support, of cultural and economic stagnation.

That’s the opening to an essay titled, “The Empty Cradle,” by Phillip Longman and others, which led to an interview with NPR’s Lynne Neary last week. She apparently didn’t realize she was dealing with an end-of-days type (even though he wrote a book with the same name as this article in 2004), and naively thought the subject was just the fiscal challenges of aging populations.

So after he described the rising challenge, she naively instigated this exchange:

NEARY: So, what is the solution? Certainly it’s not just go back to have large families, is it?

LONGMAN: Right. Well, we find in much of the developing world people who say they wish they could have children but they can’t find a way because it’s seen as too expensive. So in some ways this is almost a human rights problem…

His answer became incoherent, as for some reason he didn’t seem to want to tell her the solutions he proposed in the essay. These do mostly boil down to just going back to having large families. (That and promoting marriage.) So we get recommendations like this:

RESPECT THE ROLE OF RELIGION AS A PRONATAL FORCE. Childlessness and small families are increasingly common among secularists. Meanwhile, in Europe and the Americas, as well as in Israel, the rest of the Middle East, and beyond, there is a strong correlation between adherence to orthodox Christian, Islamic, or Judaic religious values and larger, stable families.

This point is illustrated with this graph:

I don’t think it’s breaking news that religious people usually have more children than “secularists.” But I haven’t heard the suggestion that governments promote religion as a way to boost populations. But then again, I didn’t know this either:

Even in the remotest corners of the globe, when television is introduced, birth rates soon fall. This is particularly easy to see in Brazil. … Today, the number of hours a Brazilian woman spends watching domestically produced telenovelas strongly predicts how many children she will have.

Hence, recommendation #9: “Clean up the culture.”

Longman’s essay is in a collection published by a group right-wing institutes, including W. Bradford Wilcox’s National Marriage Project, and apparently funded in this case by the Bradley Foundation, known for supporting outfits like the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, and the neoconservative militarist movement.*

Fertility dividends

Anyway, I have written before about what came to be known among demographers as “lowest-low fertility,” and the economic pressures that are both its cause and consequence. It is a tricky issue. As a non-expert, my reaction is that governments trying to get people to have more children is a fool’s errand — the way I view trying to promote marriage. It seems much more practical to look for ways to arrange resources to support populations with fewer children and more old people.

And environmentally, I thought it was good news that population growth is slowing globally. Admittedly, though, this somewhat perplexing argument by Longman et al. for population growth as a solution to the environmental crisis had somehow never occurred to me:

The more brains are available to work on natural-resource challenges, the sooner someone will come up with the idea that provides a solution.

Anyway, so what are the economic implications of population decline? This figure shows how lower fertility rates are generally associated with higher national incomes, from World Bank data.

Low fertility is usually an issue in relatively high-income countries. The average income in the countries with fertility below the replacement level of 2.1 is about $22,000 per person, while above that fertility level the average income is about $4,000 per person. But the figure also shows a lot of variation — all the rich countries have low fertility, but some relatively poor countries do, too.

As Longman et al. correctly point out, falling birth rates create a “demographic dividend,” as a smaller population of children provides opportunities for a generation of adults to invest in other things (such as higher education), and to spend time on other things (such as careers for women). But a few decades later those productive middle-aged adults grow into a big bubble of retirees, and that small group of children becomes an undersized group of prime-age workers, threatening to drag down the society’s total income. This potentially creates a fiscal crunch, as pension and medical costs rise relative to earnings.

But that’s not inevitable. If you take advantage of that period when there are fewer children — but not yet too many retirees — it is possible to reap a “second demographic dividend.” This is described in several papers by Andrew Mason and Ronald Lee, including this one, in which they write:

Given appropriate policy formulation, population aging will yield a second dividend. The same demographic changes that lead to low support ratios (high dependency ratios) in the future, namely few children and longer life, also both raise capital per worker other things equal, and additionally create a powerful incentive for individuals to accumulate assets to provide for old age. The result can be a period of rapid growth in per capita income. The rapid pace of asset accumulation is also transitory. However, per capita assets and income stabilize at a level that is permanently higher. In this respect, the second dividend persists whereas the first dividend is transitory.

They use simulations to work this out, which are quite interesting. It seems to boil down to two factors: increased investment in skills, education and experience; and increased savings (either individual or through taxation) motivated by the need to care for more retirees. I like this solution more than trying to get people to have more children.

* Aside: History is interesting this way. I used to associate right-wing foundations in America with funding for anti-population-growth intellectuals, as when the racist Pioneer Fund supported not only eugenics-type sociobiology but also Garrett Hardin’s “tough love” ecology — paraphrasing: “too many people in poor countries, aid and immigration will only drag out the problem, better just let them die.” I don’t know which of these tendencies is more active today.

I also don’t know much about Longman, but I did notice that in 2006 he predicted a renaissance for patriarchy, because conservatives have more children than progressives. He wrote in USA Today:

[progressives having fewer children] is a pattern found throughout the world, and it augers a far more conservative future — one in which patriarchy and other traditional values make a comeback, if only by default. Childlessness and small families are increasingly the norm today among progressive secularists. As a consequence, an increasing share of all children born into the world are descended from a share of the population whose conservative values have led them to raise large families.

Google searches foretold Census report of divorce increase?

But my confidence in this whole enterprise is limited.

Trying to figure out what’s happening with divorce — an extended activity for me lately — might be better left alone for a year or two, till we get some more data and do some serious analysis. But, the bad combination of a trickle of numbers, the ideological ambitions of some people with PhDs, and writers pitching trend stories to their editors, keeps dragging me back in.

But last week we actually got some real new numbers, and some new reporting, so here’s a quick update.


The unfortunate new reporting is from this USA Today article, speculating that the recession is giving couples who can’t afford a divorce a chance to reconcile before it’s too late. There are real stories of people who considered divorce but then didn’t, like this couple:

As usual, though, the personal stories are interesting but not worth the damage caused by the causal leaps:

Adding to the confusion is the financial reality that a split is expensive. Census data released last week suggest that the economy has indeed caused a dip in divorce. Some [unnamed] experts predict a divorce explosion when the economy improves, but others [unnamed] say the recession may keep some together long enough to work it out. … The Census bureau counted 65,000 fewer divorces in 2010 than in 2008, a 7% drop.

The total number of divorces between two time points — 2008 and 2010 — is not evidence that “the economy has indeed caused a dip in divorce.” What’s really going on is hard to discover because of at least three things happening at once:

  1. Long term decline in divorce rates, but also declines in marriage rates, changes in marriage timing, and changes in pre-marriage cohabitation.
  2. Muddled data collection and reporting on divorce, so that some vital statistics reports exclude important states (such as California), while the great new data from the American Community Survey (ACS) is based on self reports that have as-yet unknown biases.
  3. The recession which is probably influencing overall trends in all different directions at once.

New numbers

But there are new numbers, so we should at least report them correctly.

The ACS is a giant, national sample survey, which since 2008 has asked people about “marital events” in the previous year. These include marriage, divorce and widowhood. This is definitely not the same as counting up divorce decrees, since it’s an uncorroborated self-report. And, because the rates appear higher than those from other sources, and separation is not a “marital event” they ask about, we suspect some people say they were divorced before the legal deed is done.

Here’s what the ACS has for the past three years. I calculated “refined marriage rates,” or the number of divorces reported per 1,000 married people in the same group in the same period.

The first thing you might notice is that the divorce rates are different for men than for women, which should send up a cautionary flare on the data. Some day, when more homogamous couples have the right to legal divorces, we could have real gender differences in divorce rates, but right now they just mean differences in reporting of unknown origin. But the trends are parallel, so maybe the mismeasurement is at least consistent and the trends are legit.

Anyway, real legal divorces take a while to complete — in fact there are mandated waiting periods in many states. If the recession started in 2008 or so, did it “cause” the dip in divorce from 2008 to 2009? Or, was that just a routine annual decline, counteracted by an unusual upward blip in 2010?

We’re not going to know till we have detailed studies that look at who divorced, when and where (timing, states, unemployment rates, that sort of thing). But, I can’t resist one more trip into the Google-back machine.

Three months ago I reported Google trends “that might support the image I have of divorce pressure building up behind a levee of real estate and unemployment barriers that limit people’s options for breaking up and moving out.”

I used the same method with three more months data, and it still fits. Again, I took the top 100 searches most correlated temporally with “divorce” from Google Correlate (get it here), and broke out the ones that seem clearly divorce related:

  • filed for divorce
  • file for divorce
  • filing for divorce
  • file divorce
  • after divorce
  • attorney search
  • dissolution of marriage
  • after marriage
  • getting divorced

This graph shows the trend for just “divorce” (dots) and the average of all the terms (red line):

If I were the type to gloat prematurely, I would claim credit for predicting the increase in divorce rates Census just reported for 2010. Instead, I put a question mark in the title of the post, and let you draw your own conclusions.

Google index of poor mothers’ pain

In light of the mean-spirited Obama-wants-everyone-on-food-stamps meme, and the Heritage Foundation’s mocking attack on poor people as air-conditioned, Xbox-loving couch potatoes, let’s consider something else about poor single parents — especially poor mothers: their Google searches.

That’s right, in addition to refrigerators, apparently almost everyone in America today has Internet access — often at their local public libraries.

And yet they still complain about their little problems. They type searches into Google like, “help paying electric bill,” “hair falling out,” and even — presumably so they can laugh at the poor suckers who actually work for a living — “walmart jobs.”

The old “misery index” was just unemployment plus inflation. Maybe the new index to watch is Google searches for “help for single mothers.” Here is the trend for that search, along with one of the searches that most closely follows its trend, “walmart jobs.” The temporal correlation between these two — the amount they rise and fall together over time — is .96 on a scale of 0 to 1.

You can see the full list of 100 searches most correlated with “help for single mothers” by following this link.

After the poverty report came out last month, comedian Andy Borowitz tweeted, “One in six Americans is living in poverty, but the other five are more concerned about the changes to Facebook.” Whether you’re in the first group or the latter one — or neither — it’s worth pausing for a minute to think about the lives of people Googling things like, “help with rent,” “iud side effects,” “cheap dinner ideas” and “get a credit card with bad credit.” (The searches all correlate with “help for single mothers” at .94 or higher.)

A similar list comes up in the correlations with searches for “food stamps.” Here it is graphed with “housekeeping jobs,” correlated at .97:

The list of correlated searches is similar, including a preponderance of women’s health terms (“clots during period”) economic crises (“light bill”), and ideas for climbing out of an economic hole (“medical assistant jobs,” “dispatcher jobs”).

On the plus side, both of these trends peaked in mid-2010, for now. So maybe things have stopped getting worse quite so fast. Or maybe they just lost their Internet access at the library due to budget cuts.

Am I being selective, not reporting the searches like “loving this cool TV,” and “food stamps rule”? Not intentionally, but you never know. The links to the searches are above, and the data is free.