Big Conclusions, Little Data

December 28, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Can the Recession Save Marriage?” That was the headline of a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by W. Bradford Wilcox two weeks ago. Mr. Wilcox’s answer is a cheerful yes. And here’s the evidence:
The divorce rate is actually falling. It declined to 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2008 from 17.5 divorces in 2007 (a 3% drop), after rising from 16.4 divorces per 1,000 married women in 2005 (a 7% increase).
Three data points – 2005, 2007, 2008. That’s more than enough. Case closed.

Yes, it’s possible that other things might have been going on in the country to affect divorce rates – the sorts of things that other researchers might have tried valiantly to factor into their regressions. But I guess that for the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia (Mr. Wilcox is its director) and the Institute for American Values (Mr. Wilcox is a fellow) a 3% drop after a 7% increase is slam-dunk evidence for “a silver lining in all this financial pain.”

The larger fish Wilcox is trying to land here is the idea that poor people can have great marriages even without money, and therefore reducing inequality and economic hardship will not strengthen families. But that argument seems to be a fish story.

Philip Cohen, at the Family Inequality blog, has an excellent critique. First he graphs Wilcox’s data, giving it the gee-whiz effect that fits with Wilcox's optimism.

Then he graphs a longer-range view of divorce and economic hard times (shaded purple).

The longer perspective makes the current dip in divorce rates seem a bit less impressive.

Wilcox wants to argue that people can have great marriage even as they lose their jobs, homes, and savings. No doubt, some people can. As Wilcox says, after acknowledging that some couples don’t do so well under that kind of stress, “anecdotal evidence suggests that other couples have
responded to the recession by rededicating themselves to their marriages.”

But a small drop in the divorce rate is not evidence of
a departure from the past four decades, when many Americans came to see marriage largely as a chance to pursue a "soulmate" relationship, where couples focus on emotional intimacy, sexual satisfaction and personal fulfillment, rather than as a chance to share childbearing and childrearing and economic cooperation with an extended family.
If Wilcox is right, we can all be relieved that the recession has finally led couples to reject marriage as personal fulfillment and replace it with sharing and cooperation. But then what are we to make of the numbers reported in today’s Times: New York courts have seen an 18% increase in cases of family members assaulting one another. (And those are just the ones that make it all the way to court.)

(Huge hat tip to Philip Cohen at Family Inequality.)

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