[Paleopsych] NYT: Divorce Rate: It's Not as High as You Think

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Tue Apr 19 13:23:48 UTC 2005

Divorce Rate: It's Not as High as You Think

    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.

    "At this point, unless there's some kind of turnaround, I wouldn't
    expect any cohort to reach 50 percent, since none already has," said
    Dr. Rose M. Kreider, a demographer in the Fertility and Family
    Statistics Branch of the Census Bureau.

    Two years ago, based on a 1996 survey, she and another demographer at
    the bureau predicted that if trends then in place held steady, the
    divorce rate for some age groups might eventually hit the 50 percent
    mark. But in February, the bureau issued a new report, based on 2001
    data and written by Dr. Kreider.

    According to the report, for people born in 1955 or later, "the
    proportion ever divorced had actually declined," compared with those
    among people born earlier. And, compared with women married before
    1975, those married since 1975 had slightly better odds of reaching
    their 10th and 15th wedding anniversaries with their marriages still

    The highest rate of divorce in the 2001 survey was 41 percent for men
    who were then between the ages of 50 to 59, and 39 percent for women
    in the same age group.

    Researchers say that the small drop in the overall divorce rate is
    caused by a steep decline in the rate among college graduates. As a
    result, a "divorce divide" has opened up between those with and
    without college degrees, said Dr. Steven P. Martin, an assistant
    professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.

    "Families with highly educated mothers and families with less educated
    mothers are clearly moving in opposite directions," Dr. Martin wrote
    in a paper that has not yet been published but has been presented and
    widely discussed at scientific meetings.

    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

    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.

    About 60 percent of all marriages that eventually end in divorce do so
    within the first 10 years, researchers say. If that continues to hold
    true, the divorce rate for college graduates who married between 1990
    and 1994 would end up at only about 25 percent, compared to well over
    50 percent for those without a four-year college degree.

    "It's a big wow sort of story," Dr. Martin said. "I've been looking
    for two years at other data sets to see if it's wrong, but it really
    looks like it's happening."

    Still, some researchers remain skeptical about the significance of the
    small drop in overall divorce rates.

    "The crude divorce rate has been going down," said Dr. Andrew J.
    Cherlin, professor of public policy in the sociology department at
    Johns Hopkins. "But whether the rates will ultimately reach 45 percent
    or 50 percent over the next few decades are just projections. None of
    them are ironclad."

    Dr. Larry Bumpass, an emeritus professor of sociology at the
    University of Wisconsin's Center for Demography and Ecology, has long
    held that divorce rates will eventually reach or exceed 50 percent. In
    an interview, he said that it was "probably right" that the official
    divorce statistics might fall below 50 percent, but that the rate
    would still be close.

    "About half is still a very sensible statement," he said.

    What all experts do agree on is that, after more than a century of
    rising divorce rates in the United States, the rates abruptly stopped
    going up around 1980.

    Part of the uncertainty about the most recent trends derives from the
    fact that no detailed annual figures have been available since 1996,
    when the National Center for Health Statistics stopped collecting
    detailed data from states on the age, income, education and race of
    people who divorced.

    As a result, estimates from surveys have had to fill in the gaps.

    "The government has dropped the ball on data collection," said Dr.
    David Popenoe, professor of sociology and co-director of the National
    Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

    Joshua R. Goldstein, associate professor of sociology and public
    affairs at Princeton's Office of Population Research, said the loss of
    detailed government data, coming at a time when divorce rates were at
    their highest, might have distorted not only public perception, but
    people's behavior.

    "Expectations of high divorce are in some ways self-fulfilling," he
    said. "That's a partial explanation for why rates went up in the

    As word gets out that rates have tempered or actually begun to fall,
    Dr. Goldstein added, "It could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in
    the other direction."

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