You can really do a lot with the common public misperception that divorce is always going up. Brad Wilcox has been taking advantage of that since at least 2009, when he selectively trumpeted a decline in divorce (a Christmas gift to marriage) as if it was not part of an ongoing trend.
I have reported that the divorce rate in the U.S. (divorces per married woman) fell 21 percent from 2008 to 2017. And yet yesterday, Faithwire’s Will Maule wrote, “With divorce rates rocketing across the country, it can be easy to lose a bit of hope in the God-ordained bond of marriage.”
Anyway, now there is hope, because, as right-wing podcaster Lee Habeeb wrote in Newsweek, THE INCREDIBLE SUCCESS STORY BEHIND ONE COUNTY’S PLUMMETING DIVORCE RATE SHOULD INSPIRE US ALL. In fact, we may be on the bring of Reversing Social Disintegration, according to Seth Kaplan, writing in National Affairs. That’s because of the Culture of Freedom Initiative of the Philanthropy Roundtable (a right-wing funding aggregator run by people like Art Pope, Betsy Devos, the Bradley Foundation, the Hoover Institution, etc.), which has now been spun off as Cummunio, a marriage ministry that uses marriage programs to support Christian churches. Writes Kaplan:
The program, which has recently become an independent nonprofit organization called Communio, used the latest marketing techniques to “microtarget” outreach, engaged local churches to maximize its reach and influence, and deployed skills training to better prepare individuals and couples for the challenges they might face. COFI highlights how employing systems thinking and leveraging the latest in technology and data sciences can lead to significant progress in addressing our urgent marriage crisis.
The program claims 50,000 people attended four-hour “marriage and faith strengthening programs,” and further made 20 million Internet impressions “targeting those who fit a predictive model for divorce.” So, have they increased marriage and reduced divorce? I don’t know, and neither do they, but they say they do.
Funny aside, the results website today says “Communio at work: Divorce drops 24% in Jacksonville,” but a few days ago the same web page said 28%. That’s probably because Duval County (which is what they’re referring to) just saw a SHOCKING 6% INCREASE IN DIVORCE (my phrase) in 2018 — the 10th largest divorce rate increase in all 40 counties in Florida for which data are available (see below). But anyway, that’s getting ahead of the story.
Gimme the report
The 28% result came from this report by Brad Wilcox and Spencer James, although they don’t link to it. That’s what I’ll focus on here. The report describes the many hours of ministrations, and the 20 million Internet impressions, and then gets to the heart of the matter:
We answer this question by looking at divorce and marriage trends in Duval County and three comparable counties in Florida: Hillsborough, Orange, and Escambia. Our initial data analysis suggests that the COFI effort with Live the Life and a range of religious and civic partners has had an exceptional impact on marital stability in Duval County. Since 2016, the county has witnessed a remarkable decline in divorce: from 2015 to 2017, the divorce rate fell 28 percent. As family scholars, we have rarely seen changes of this size in family trends over such a short period of time. Although it is possible that some other factor besides COFI’s intervention also helped, we think this is unlikely. In our professional opinion, given the available evidence, the efforts undertaken by COFI in Jacksonville appear to have had a marked effect on the divorce rate in Duval County.
A couple things about these very strong causal claims. First, they say nothing about how the “comparable counties” were selected. Florida seems to have 68 counties, 40 of which the Census gave me population counts for. Why not use them all? (You’ll understand why I ask when they get to the N=4 regression.) Second, how about that “exceptional impact,” the “remarkable decline” “rarely seen” in their experience as family scholars? Note there is no evidence in the report of the program doing anything, just the three year trend. And while it is a big decline, it’s one I would call “occasionally seen.” (It helps to know that divorce is generally going down — something the report never mentions.)
To put the decline in perspective, first a quick national look. In 2009 there was a big drop in divorce, accelerating the ongoing decline, presumably related to the recession (analyzed here). It was so big that nine states had crude divorce rate declines of 20% or more in that one year alone. Here is what 2008-2009 looked like:
So, a drop in divorce on this scale is not that rare in recent times. This is important background Wilcox is (comfortably) counting on his audience not knowing. So what about Florida?
Again, there is no reason given for selecting these three counties. To test the comparison, which evidently shows a faster decline in Duval, they perform two regression models. (To their credit, James shared their data with me when I requested it — although it’s all publicly available this was helpful to make sure I was doing it the same way they did.) First, I believe they ran a regression with an N of 4, the dependent variable being the 2014-2017 decline in divorce rate, and the independent variable being a dummy for Duval. I share the complete dataset for this model here:
I don’t know exactly what they did with the second model, which must somehow how have a larger sample than 4 because it has 8 variables. Maybe 16 county-years? Anyway, doesn’t much matter. Here is their table:
How to evaluate a faster decline among a general trend toward lower divorce rates? If you really wanted to know if the program worked, you would have to study the program, people who were in the program and people who weren’t and so on. (See this writeup of previous marriage promotion disasters, studied correctly, for a good example.) But I’m quite confident that this conclusion is ridiculous and irresponsible: “In our professional opinion, given the available evidence, the efforts undertaken by COFI in Jacksonville appear to have had a marked effect on the divorce rate in Duval County.” No one should take such a claim seriously except as a reflection on the judgment or motivations of its author.
Because the “comparison counties” was bugging me, I got the divorce counts from Florida’s Vital Statistics office (available here), and combined them with Census data on county populations (table S0101 on census.data.gov). Since 2018 has now come out, I’m showing the change in each county’s crude divorce rate from 2015, before Communio, through 2018.
You can see that Duval has had a bigger drop in divorce than most Florida counties — 32 of which saw divorce rates fall in this period. Of the counties that had bigger declines, Monroe and Santa Rosa are quite small, but Lake County is mid-sized (population 350,000), and bigger than Escambia, which is one of the comparison counties. How different their report could have been with different comparison cases! This is why it’s a good idea to publicly specify your research design before you collect your data, so people don’t suspect you of data shenanigans like goosing your comparison cases.
What about that 2018 rebound? Wilcox and James stopped in 2017. With the 2018 data we can look further. Eighteen counties had increased divorce rates in 2018, and Duval’s was large at 6%. Two of the comparison cases (Hillsborough and Escambria) had decreases in divorce, as did the state’s largest county, Miami-Dade (down 5%).
To summarize, Duval County had a larger than average decline in divorce rates in 2014-2017, compared with the rest of Florida, but then had a larger-than-average increase in 2018. That’s it.
Obviously, Communio wants to see more marriage, too, but here not even Wilcox can turn the marriage frown upside down.
Why no boom in marriage, with all those Internet hits and church sessions? They reason:
This may be because the COFI effort did not do much to directly promote marriage per se (it focused on strengthening existing marriages and relationships), or it may be because the effort ended up encouraging Jacksonville residents considering marriage to proceed more carefully. One other possibility may also help explain the distinctive pattern for Duval County. Hurricane Irma struck Jacksonville in September of 2017; this weather event may have encouraged couples to postpone or relocate their weddings.
OK, got it — so they totally could have increased marriage if they had wanted to. Except for the hurricane. I can’t believe I did this, but I did wonder about the hurricane hypothesis. Here are the number of marriages per month in Duval County, from 13 months before Hurrican Irma (September 2017), to 13 months after, with Septembers highlighted.
There were fewer marriages in September 2017 than 2016, 51 fewer, but September is a slow month anyway. And they almost made up for it with a jump in December, which could be hurricane-related postponements. But then the following September was no better, so this hypothesis doesn’t look good. (Sheesh, how much did they get paid to do this report? I’m not holding back any of the analysis here.)
Aside: Kristen & Jessica had a beautiful wedding in Jacksonville just a few days after Hurricane Irma. Jessica recalled, “Hurricane Irma hit the week before our wedding, which damaged our venue pretty badly. As it was outdoors on the water, there were trees down all over the place and flooding… We were very lucky that everything was cleaned up so fast. The weather the day of the wedding turned out to be perfect!” I just had to share this picture, for the Communio scrapbook:
So, to recap: Christian philanthropists and intrepid social scientists have pretty much reversed social disintegration and the media is just desperate to keep you from finding out about it.