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December 30, 2005

Family Values (Apparently, We Have Them)

Now here's something I didn't know:

How many American marriages end in divorce? One in two, if you believe the statistic endlessly repeated in news media reports, academic papers and campaign speeches.

The figure is based on a simple - and flawed - calculation: the annual marriage rate per 1,000 people compared with the annual divorce rate. In 2003, for example, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 7.5 marriages per 1,000 people and 3.8 divorces, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

But researchers say that this is misleading because the people who are divorcing in any given year are not the same as those who are marrying, and that the statistic is virtually useless in understanding divorce rates. In fact, they say, studies find that the divorce rate in the United States has never reached one in every two marriages, and new research suggests that, with rates now declining, it probably never will.

The method preferred by social scientists in determining the divorce rate is to calculate how many people who have ever married subsequently divorced. Counted that way, the rate has never exceeded about 41 percent, researchers say. Although sharply rising rates in the 1970's led some to project that the number would keep increasing, the rate has instead begun to inch downward.

More interesting yet:

As the overall divorce rates shot up from the early 1960's through the late 1970's, Dr. Martin found, the divorce rate for women with college degrees and those without moved in lockstep, with graduates consistently having about one-third to one-fourth the divorce rate of nongraduates.

But since 1980, the two groups have taken diverging paths. Women without undergraduate degrees have remained at about the same rate, their risk of divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage hovering at around 35 percent. But for college graduates, the divorce rate in the first 10 years of marriage has plummeted to just over 16 percent of those married between 1990 and 1994 from 27 percent of those married between 1975 and 1979.

That the divorce rate isn't actually approaching 65 percent doesn't get a whole lot of attention, but it's easy enough to see why. The incentive for the media is to continue their family-is-flailing narrative, saying we have a more moderate divorce rate just doesn't lend itself to hysterical specials during sweeps week. And woe to the family values politician who inveighs against our culture of sin and then admits that it's a little less sinful than previously thought. It's like with video game violence -- no one gets any traction out of correcting the record on their links to violence, but plenty of folks make careers out of hyping it.

December 30, 2005 | Permalink


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The incentive for the media is to continue their family-is-flailing narrative, saying we have a more moderate divorce rate just doesn't lend itself to hysterical specials during sweeps week.

I believe it to be the nature of news. I have seen this same phenomenon right here in the liberal blogosphere. News that DeLay is indicted makes every headline, but news of the dismissal of the main charge barely gets a mention. Even the weatherman forces the numbers on the board up with 'heat index' and farther down in winter with 'wind chill'.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Dec 30, 2005 2:22:48 PM

Well, and call me "glass half empty" all you like, but it still strikes me that there's a problem.

The fact that better educated women are staying married leads to more questions - what about men? what are the dynamics? Is it possible that college educated women are getting married later, in fewer nunbers than before, all with ramifications to the precentage?

I'm also curous about the divorce rate after ten years. Maybe people wait.

But mostly I wonder - and feel for - those women with less than a college education. It's strikes me that their economic situations must be particularly precarious, even without kids. And while these stats undermine a Republican case that family values are quite the issue they say they are, it also makes me wonder: have Dems really done enough to call out the problems facing divorced women with less education? It seems to me there's a way to say "here's where the "family values" problem meets the road, and what are conservatives doing about it? Because I suspect the answer is, not much.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 30, 2005 2:36:16 PM

All good points.

Posted by: Ezra | Dec 30, 2005 2:49:34 PM

Yes, we have a wonk trivia winner. Wouldn't wanta get Somerby po-ed by implying that anyone in a red state ever watches ABC or gets more than 41 divorces out of 100 marriages.

After all, 41% is way the hell better than 50%. Whew. Sweet Absalom.

I sure hope the the sarcasm translates on this thing.

Posted by: Nash | Dec 30, 2005 3:17:33 PM

Speaking of "glass empty," that joke about half of all marriages ending in death just got 20% darker.

Posted by: Jack Roy | Dec 30, 2005 4:18:05 PM

One thing you didn't mention was the declining marriage rate. Divorce may be going down but so is marriage. This is obviously the case, or else there wouldn't be half as many divorces as there are marriages in any given year. It's still not a good sign.

Posted by: shoelimpy™ | Dec 30, 2005 5:31:45 PM

It's like with video game violence -- no one gets any traction out of correcting the record on their links to violence, but plenty of folks make careers out of hyping it.

I don't know, I was just playing "Call of Duty 2" and I totally want to kill some Nazis.

Posted by: Col Bat Guano | Dec 30, 2005 6:28:56 PM

Wow, I had no idea that statistic was based on such a shoddy statistical shortcut.

Posted by: djw | Dec 30, 2005 8:30:47 PM

Those numbers at the end don't add up. 16% is more than 1/3 of 35%, and 27% is about 3/4 of it.

Posted by: Drew Miller | Dec 30, 2005 8:40:41 PM

Next, you'll be telling us that we actually use more than 10% of our brains!

One thing -- does it factor into the statistics that anyone can get married but only married couples can divorce? (Well, technically only unmarried people can marry....) Doesn't that make n/1000 comparisons useless?

Posted by: Grumpy | Dec 31, 2005 12:56:04 AM

Huh. So, the big reason overall divorce rates are declining is because college-educated women don't get divorced. Fascinating.

Why do I think all those "marriage is the answer" conservatives won't be pushing for more women to go to college? Why do I think George Bush's "marriage promotion" strategies don't include money for the wife to go to college? Or for all young women to go to college?

At some point you'd think conservatives would be embarrassed that the feminists keep kicking their ass. I mean, we opened up colleges to women and as a result...women stay married! Lordy, and it's the feminists who are supposedly man-hating homewreckers? Whatever.

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