Sunday, March 23, 2008

Divorce, Marriage and the Deregulation of the Family

How could I resist this title? Dubner & Levitt continue to blog on applications of economics to modern day problems - as they did in their bestseller Freakonomics, published in 2005. This follows the topic of crisis articles.

This is a favourite topic of mine - misinterpretation of complex statistics by simple reporters looking for a quick story - like the "historically high divorce rate". In this case Sue Shellenbarger of the 2008 March 21 WSJ writes "On average, 43 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce within 15 years, a federal study shows."

This presumably refers to last US Bureau of Census data for 2004 which shows that 56.9 percent of women married from 1985 to 1989 had reached their 15th anniversary, and from that, inferring that 43.1 percent had divorced or separated within 15 years of marriage.

Clearly there are a few problems: 1) The Survey took place in the summer so even assuming roughly equal monthly distributions of weddings, 1/10 women would be from 1-6 months shy of their 15th year anniversary! 2) Then there is the fact that widows do not choose divorce but have it thrust upon them and still count as "no longer married".

Adjusting for these facts reduces what should more properly be called the "Womens 15 yr Divorce Marathon Rate" to 33%. The trend for men - not surprisingly - is very similar - 31.2%.

This is also born out by looking at the incidence of US Divorces (rate per 1,000 married couples) which shows the rate of divorce peaked at 22.8 divorces per 1,000 married couples in 1979 and has fallen 16.7 in 2005 - its lowest level since 1970. So marriages that do occur are increasingly more stable and the Divorce Crisis is just a myth. I do not have similar data for Canada - but will make a point to find some soon.

But I think the real crisis is Official Marriage. As Wolfers clearly points out - Marriage incidence is declining and has in fact reached historic lows (with stats since 1860!). Many would argue that marriage has only been replaced by common-law cohabitation, but that is a difficult claim to disprove. The data collection of such statistics is still evolving - in particular as same sex unions become legal in US states.

But it does seem that U.S. couples who cohabit before marriage have been historically more likely to divorce than those who do not. Among those couples who were cohabiting in January 1997, slightly more than half were no longer together five years later and only a quarter had married.

Here is Justin Wolfers excellent academic article on the issue.

p.s The other article mentioned at Freakonomics is not worth agitating over - as mentioned in accompanied comments, Spanish parents merely appear to be "faking" divorce so they can gain benefits for their children.

Desintegrating Mother and Child by Salvador Dali

1 comment:

  1. Chris, your favorite topic, the misinterpretation of complex statistics by simple (also often known as feminist) reporters, is also a favorite subject of interest for me.

    Your comments on US divorce rates that have now reached their lowest level since 1970 are right on the mark.

    You lamented the lack of comparable Canadian statistics relating to the US trends that show a gradual strengthening and renewed appreciation of the institution of marriage.

    Comparable Canadian statistics are hard to come by, as social research is dominated and controlled by feminists (even within Statistics Canada) -- and feminist "researchers" are notoriously reluctant to report on family-positive findings. However, the website of contains some leads that may point you into the right direction for pertinent sources of such information for Canada.

    You can find that information by entering the search string -Canadian "divorce rates"- (excluding the leading and trailing hyphens) into the search entry field at the upper right of virtually all and any of the web pages at

    I would like to caution you on the danger of over-estimating the extent of the impact of same-sex marriages or declarations of same-sex civil unions. Registered same-sex unions or marriages have proven themselves to be unexpectedly and surprisingly low where they became legal, in spite of the influx of same-sex couples from regions where such unions or marriages have not become legalized yet.

    All the best,