The Divorce Myth

I want to start my week guest blogging by talking about divorce. Betsey Stevenson and
I had an
op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times
noting a very simple fact: those
married in the 1990s have proved less likely to divorce than those wed in the
1980s, which were less likely to divorce than those wed in the 1970s. The
Divorce Facts are that divorce is falling, and marriages are more stable
.

What is surprising, is just how easily and how often the
Divorce Facts lose out to the Divorce Myth. The Divorce Myth is that divorce
is rising
. When the latest
divorce numbers came out last week, they once again confirm this
quarter-century long decline in divorce, but the media (including the Times,
Post,
and the Inquirer)
chose instead to write (incorrectly) about rising divorce. (In their defense, the data were presented in
a way that invited misinterpretation, a subject that I shall return to in a
future post.)

Why the persistence of the Divorce Myth?

  1. Blame the
    public for underestimating divorce
    : Tyler
    has argued
    that Americans “underestimate the probability of divorce”, and
    so when the statistics show that divorce is quite common, they infer divorce
    must have risen.
  2. Blame the
    public for overestimating divorce
    : Greg
    Mankiw thinks
    that this “seems be an example of what Bryan Caplan calls ‘the
    pessimistic bias’, a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems.”
  3. Blame the
    press
    : Mankiw may be a bit unfair on Joe Citizen: the average person gets
    their news from the press, and in this case, the press reported falsehoods as
    facts.
  4. Blame the
    politics
    : We argued that “Reporting on our families is a lot like reporting
    on the economy: statistical tales of woe provide the foundation for reform
    proposals. The only difference is that
    conservatives use these data to make the case for greater government
    intervention in the marriage market, while liberals use them to promote
    deregulation of marriage.”
  5. Blame the
    professors
    : Academics are meant to provide the facts offsetting the
    political hacks. But we don’t. Economists have had too little respect for
    simple facts; publication glory lies with grand theories. Ideologically-motivated profs teaching family
    sociology or family law would rather reinforce the Myth than offset it.

Personally, I go for #4 causing #3, unchecked by #5, and
would love to see research by Bryan testing #1 v. #2.  Your thoughts?

Comments

Just a small nit to pick with #2. I think that the people that fall into the pessimistic bias tend to see all of society in a pessimistic way. I doubt that most people consider divorce and economic issue, but a moral/ethical one. I have not read any of Bryan's works, but I was under the impression that he was referring to more than just economic pessimism. As a child of a failed marriage from the 70's, I can't help but ask what you think were the reasons for the spike of divorces in the 70's?

Isaac Crawford
Blogging in Yemen
www.isaharr.com

1) I think you're measuring the wrong stat to examine the pervasiveness of divorce.

2) I think your observed decline in the divorce rate is entirely attributable to the decline in the rate of marriages.

You write in your op-ed

The narrative of rising divorce is also completely at odds with counts of divorce certificates, which show the divorce rate as having peaked at 22.8 divorces per 1,000 married couples in 1979 and to have fallen by 2005 to 16.7.

That certainly looks impressive. However, the rate of marriages over that same time went from 10.4 in 1979 to 7.5 in 2005 (See this SD report which has the US marriage rate in Table 1)

From that same report, divorce rates/1000 went from 5.2 in 1979 to 3.6 in 2005. So the marriage rate declines by 2.9 and the divorce rate by 1.6.

Also FYI, by my calculation that's a decline in annual divorces/marriage from 50% to 48% which seems like an inconsequential drop to me particularly as in 2002 it was 4.0/7.8 = 51% which would represent an actual increase in the divorce/marriage ratio.

Personally, I think that marriage as an institution is declining, specifically, what we're observing is an across-the-board decrease in the desirability of marriage.

Jody --

The statistic Wolfers cites is per married couple, not per population.

1) Re Jody's point re declining rate of marriage: If many couples that in the past would have married in haste and then divorced now don't marry, then it is possible that we are getting a falling divorce rate simply from a higher proportion of marriages today being among people who are older at time of marriage and who have thought it through a bit more.

2) Re who is to blame for the misperception: I would favor #3 and #5. I would be surprised if 1 reporter in 100 had any stats training. I do not believe (and am too lazy to check) that any even Masters in Journalism program has a required Stats course, let alone 2 or 3. The reason the profs (#5) share the blame is because they are not providing the training for the journalists, nor timely, succint commentary. We may be seeing the start of a process of rectification of this with blogging, but that is still a haphazard process with a limited audience.
Personally, I would love to see the major papers appoint a statistical editor who would review all stats stories to help the reporters understand what they are reporting on, and who would add an editor's comment box pointing out the limitations of the reported study.

A simple graph would be very helpful. Has the recent decline taken to levels of divorce circa 1965?

Let's perhaps clarify the question that we are asking here. To say the divorce rate is declining seems to me to be saying something like:

Of those people who get married, it is less likely today that after X years of marriage a marriage will end in divorce than it was for a marriage of X years to have ended in divorce in the past.

Put more concretely: In, say, 1990, how likely was it that couples married in 1980 were divorced vs. in, say, 2000, how likely was it that couples married in 1990 were divorced? If the latter number is lower, then the divorce rate can be said to have fallen.

This would seem to take into account the lower rate of marriage concern.

And it's also important to note that a "falling divorce rate" (understood as the percentage of marriages that end in divorce) is compatible with a decline in marriage as an institution if the rate of marriage is falling, and especially if it's falling faster than the divorce rate. It is possible that we are seeing fewer but "better" marriages.

That would be consistent with the general decline in the benefits of marriage as the gains from specialization have dramatically decreased with the increase in the female labor force participation rate and the closing of the gender wage gap. The reasons to marry have much more to do with personal happiness than broadly economic considerations. Thus, we may well be seeing fewer but better marriages.

Actually, Jody, you're missing the other statistic Wolfers and Stevenson mention in the op-ed:

"For instance, marriages that began in the 1990s were more likely to celebrate a 10th anniversary than those that started in the 1980s, which, in turn, were also more likely to last than marriages that began back in the 1970s."

Since Justin is fixing the endpoint, then that automatically takes care of your worry that he's overcounting older, more stable marriages.

The total sample of marriages that started in 1995 and we examine today at 2007 are doing better than the total sample of marriages that began in 1975, when we evaluate their status in 1987.

Based on the comments so far, I'm really voting for the pessimistic bias.

I generally interpret "divorce is rising" as equivalent to "women have more opportunity", e.g. as good news.

"I want to see the actual numbers. Based on the stats I have handy the drop may be trivial."

Well, you may not be able to claim that divorce is falling based on "trivial" drops. But you sure as heck can't claim that divorce is rising. At best, you're down to arguing that the probability of divorce stayed the same over 20 years.

You appear to concede now that the 10-year measure adjusts for your earlier overcounting concerns, and that the measure shows at least "trivial" drops in divorce over time.

You appear to concede now that the 10-year measure adjusts for your earlier overcounting concerns, and that the measure shows at least "trivial" drops in divorce over time.

Actually, I'm saying that the other stats may address the concern, but it would contradict my cited numbers, so I want to see what the actual values are as there was also a trivial drop from 79-05 in my numbers. It may be a difference in methodologies, but that would interesting in and of itself as mine says flat and the unenumerated trend says decline. However, if unenumerated trend's decline is also trivial, then there's no tension between the methods.

Russ, no. From the New York Times article:

"For instance, marriages that began in the 1990s were more likely to celebrate a 10th anniversary than those that started in the 1980s, which, in turn, were also more likely to last than marriages that began back in the 1970s."

So they see how couples that got married in 1970 were doing in 1980, compare that to couples that got married in 1980 and how those couples were doing in 1990, and compare those to couples that got married in 1990 and how those couples were doing in 2000.

So it's apples-to-apples.

All Tyler said in that post was that people underestimate the probability of their own divorce, not that they underestimate divorce rates in general.

In response to http://www.marginalrevolution.com/ blog byJustin Wolfers on Divorce Myth:

In result to Mr. wolfers blog I choose #2 Blame the public for overestimating divorce: and # 3 Blame the press in my opinion neither one of the sources really understand the meaning of devorce and why they occur. Some are personal issues, some are related to cheating and alot are realated to finatual problems. It is proven in the numbers that each ten years the divorce rates go down, from the previous ten years before that. I agree with #'s 2 and 3 beacsue in my opinion it relates back to exactly what Mr. Wolfers said, In their defense, the data were presented in a way that invited misinterpretation so there for the press blows it up and then the public overestimates divorce rates. Mostly beacuse the public eye believes every thing they read and see. So in result that makes the public and the press make it seem as though divorce rate has gone threw the charts. When in the real life sinario we should be looking at pre marital kids and those rates, there is way more of them than divorce rates in the first place.

The pattern you recognize is very similar to that with crime statistics. It does not matter that most crimes that can be tracked long term (because they have existed long term) have dropped considerably over the last century. It does not matter when crime drops in a particular year or quarter for a particular place (city, state, national, etc.). The reports will always either emphasize whatever can be indicate to suggest increase crime, or simply report that crime is up when it is down. I once saw a newspaper report that stated "Perception that crime is on the increase is rising" ... this accompanied the then-just-out FBI stats that indicated that most crimes had dropped over the previous decade.

We prefer to be scared.

As the main purpose of beginning to date again after a divorce is to reestablish yourself as a single, and to take that single status into the social scene, it is unwise to consider such dating to be a means of leading to another ...

DI instruction, hmm. I will contend that the though of teaching by script is a method which seems counterintuitive. Certainly I am not the only one who has heard that saying, "What is good for everyone, is good for no one."

Of course reading that, I think of those things that are good for everyone - oxygen, water, and love.

Bringing things back to education - I also think that reading, writing and numeracy is good for everyone. And indeed become better for everyone the more people who can use them.

Re Jody's point re declining rate
Abercrombie Outerwears
Abercrombie Hoodies
of marriage: If many couples that in the past would have married in haste and then divorced now don't marry, then it is possible that we are getting a falling divorce rate simply from a higher proportion of marriages today being among people who are older at time of marriage and who have thought it through a bit more.

Thanks so much for the compliment. It means a lot to me to hear from people who enjoy the blog! Hopefully you will enjoy future posts just as much. So dont forget to subscribe to the blog.!

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