First some news, then the urgent story behind the news.
All marriages and divorces are local. Whether and when people marry is dependent on who they meet and the conditions under which their relationships develop — social, economic, and even political. And divorce depends on local factors as well, such as the likelihood or feasibility of meeting alternative partners, the costs and consequences of divorce, and the norms and laws regulating divorce. (The same is true for forming and ending non-marital relationships, but those are harder to measure and their dynamics are different).
The Millennial Divorce Capital
So, I know the question you’re dying to have answered is: Where do Millennials get divorced? This question is so compelling that I’ve suspended my normal objection to arbitrary generational definitions, and let Mellennials be defined as anyone born in 1980 or later — so this is the divorce rate among people roughly ages 15 to 31 in the 2009-2011 American Community Survey.
Measuring divorce is complicated, because you’ve got a lot of choices. Here are two simple ways: The number of divorces among Millennials occurring in the previous year per 1,000 Millennials in the population (the crude Millennial divorce rate), and the number of those divorces per 100 married Millennials (the refined Millennial divorce rate). Think of the crude rate as the chance of meeting a Millennial who just got divorced walking down the street, and the refined rate as the chance that one of your married friends just got divorced. I’ve ranked them by the refined rate for this table, which we can use to crown Portland, Oregon the Millennial Divorce Capital of the United States (it’s #1 on both measures).
This is just the 25 largest Millennial population centers, for which we have the most reliable estimates of divorce rates. Nationally, 6.2 out of every 1,000 living Millennials reported getting divorced in the previous 12 months.
The differences in the two rates I show can be very important. For example, if I expanded the list to the top 50, you would see that the city in which you are most likely to bump into a divorced Millennial at random (spilling your non-caffeinated beverage) is Salt Lake City, where an astonishing 9.7 out of every 1,000 Millennials got divorced in the past year. That’s not because they love divorce, however, it’s because they love marriage. An amazing 34% of Salt Lake City Millennials in 2009-2011 had already been married, compared to just 23% in Divorce Capital Portland.
On the other hand, it’s not just that more married people means more people available for divorce. It’s also the case that early marriage increases the risk of divorce. And more than that, places where early marriage is common have higher rates, even for people who get married at older ages. In this figure I show an adjusted divorce rate (technically, the predicted chance of divorcing in year 5 given marrying at age 23) by the average age at first marriage in each metro area: Divorce is less common in the late-marriage cities*:
(Note that, to produce this figure, you need a survey that asks millions of people how many times they’ve been married, the year they most recently got married, and whether they got divorced in the past year. You don’t just type this into a Google search box.)
But wait, I’m afraid it’s more complicated than that. And here I’m moving toward the urgent story behind the news.
People move around. Divorce may occur in a split second, but what demographers call “relationship dissolution” unfolds over time. People move after they divorce, they divorce after they move, and they may even get divorced in places other than where they live. The ACS data I’m using here help sort this out. This divorce incidence measure is based on a survey question, not a legal record. As with all the other questions on the survey (age, race, income, education, etc.), we more or less have to trust the answers people give (some implausible answers are edited out by the Census Bureau). If we really want to understand how and where divorce (or marriage) happens, we need to be creative and careful, and use the best data. And this is the best data.
Here’s a simple illustration. This figure shows the percentage of two groups of Millennials in each state who arrived in the past year: Those who are married, and those who just got divorced. For example, in Oregon, home of the Millennial Divorce Capital, 17% of the divorced Millennials lived in a different state last year. So either moving to Oregon led to their divorce, or their divorce led to an interstate migration. In contrast, only 7% of Oregon’s married Millennial population just got there (click to enlarge):
The red line is the diagonal, so states above the line — most states — have more divorced arrivals than married arrivals (I excluded a few states with few cases in the data). There are, naturally, a lot of fascinating ways you might approach these questions. Which brings me to the urgent news.
Save the American Community Survey marital events and history data
I know from experience that some of you are thinking things like, “Break it down by race!”, “What about gay couples?”, and “What about hypergamy?” If you want those answers, get out your wallets. This information doesn’t just happen, it’s garnered through a massive federal data collection, without which our ability to know ourselves and our society would be severely compromised. And that’s what might be about to happen.
The data I just showed came from the American Community Survey (ACS), the large Census Bureau survey that replaced the “long form” of the decennial census in the 2000s. (The data are wonderfully prepared and distributed by the good people at IPUMS.org.) Unlike a simple national random survey — which is a major undertaking in itself — the ACS uses a sophisticated rotating geographic design that samples from all around the country to gather the information we need for all levels of geographic detail – down to the neighborhood.
Filling out this survey, in 3.5 million households, is estimated to take about 2.3 million hours of the American people’s time and cost a fortune. Now the federal government is reviewing the different parts of the survey looking for unnecessary parts, and they have identified 7 questions that could be cut, including the ones I’ve been using here: marital events (did you get married, divorce, or widowed in the last year), marital history (how many times have you been married, when did you get married most recently), and a couple others. So I’m trying to convince you to submit a public comment urging them not to make the cuts.
Why do we need this?
Believe it or not, there is no national count of marriages and divorces. That’s right, your government cannot tell you how many legal marriages and divorces there are. They used to collect this from every state, but now they don’t. States collect this information, but it’s not standardized, and it’s not collected together. And, even if it were, we wouldn’t be able to analyze it with all the detail I’ve used here — using marriage duration, age at marriage, and other important factors. So, even at the national level, this is all we have.
However, just for national marriage and divorce statistics, we wouldn’t need the ACS. We could use a smaller survey, like the Current Population Survey or others. If they wanted to work out one of those alternatives before canceling these questions, that would be OK for national statistics.
However, for smaller populations — state and local populations, minority groups, gay and lesbian couples — there is no alternative. If we lose these questions on the ACS, we lose the ability to do all that. Unfortunately, there is no legal or legislative mandate to collect this information down to the local level, which is why it’s on the chopping block. It’s just super interesting and important, not legally required. So we need to communicate that up the chain of command and hope they listen.
To help motivate and inform you toward that end, here’s a list of what we would not know about divorce without the ACS marital events and history questions, and then the information for contacting the federal government with your comment. These are just from my blog, I haven’t done an exhaustive search. The point is not that I’ve done so much, but that there is so much of vital importance that we can learn from this data.
- The refined divorce rate in 2012 was 19 per 1,000 married people.
- The overall projected divorce rate for couples marrying in 2012 is about 50%. This requires using marriage, divorce, and widowhood incidence to calculate competing risks. You need all the ACS questions for that.
- We lost about 150,000 divorces during and after the recession. Then divorce rebounded to catch up to its (declining) trend. That’s the result of my analysis published in Population Research and Policy Review, which relied on a model using all the ACS individual data in all 50 states.
- People with disabilities are much more likely to get divorced than people without. The magnitude of the difference depends on the type of disability.
- Divorce rates in first marriages are more than three-times as high for Black women as for Asian women in the U.S.
- The 2008-09 refined divorce rate by state was correlated with Google searches for “colt 45 automatic” at .86 (on a scale of -1 to 1).
- The 2011 crude divorce rate by state was correlated with Google searches for “vasectomy reversal” at .79.
- The changing pattern of same-sex marriage across states and local areas. We don’t know this yet, but we should, and we’ll want to, and the ACS is the only way we’ll be able to.
The information about the planned cuts to the American Community Survey is here: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2014/10/31/2014-25912/proposed-information-collection-comment-request-the-american-community-survey-content-review-results:
Direct all written comments to Jennifer Jessup, Departmental Paperwork Clearance Officer, Department of Commerce, Room 6616, 14th and Constitution Avenue NW., Washington, DC 20230 (or via the Internet at email@example.com).
Comments will be accepted until December 30.
* Here’s the mixed-effect multilevel regression testing the relationship between average age at marriage (meanagemarr) and odds of divorcing, controlling for age at marriage and duration of marriage, for 262,269 married people in 283 metro areas:
If you want to see serious research into the effects of age at marriage, local age at marriage, and religion, on divorce, this paper by Glass and Levchak is the right place to start.