Saturday, September 29, 2007

Good News about Marriage

In today's NY Times, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers correct the record:

THE great myth about divorce is that marital breakup is an increasing threat to American families, with each generation finding their marriages less stable than those of their parents....The story of ever-increasing divorce is a powerful narrative. It is also wrong. In fact, the divorce rate has been falling continuously over the past quarter-century, and is now at its lowest level since 1970....

Why were so many analysts led astray by the recent data? Understanding this puzzle requires digging deeper into some rather complex statistics.

The Census Bureau reported that slightly more than half of all marriages occurring between 1975 and 1979 had not made it to their 25th anniversary.... But here’s the rub: The census data come from a survey conducted in mid-2004, and at that time, it had not yet been 25 years since the wedding day of around 1 in 10 of those whose marriages they surveyed....

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.

Why has the great divorce myth persisted so powerfully? Reporting on our families is a lot like reporting on the economy: statistical tales of woe provide the foundation for reform proposals.

This seems to be an example of what Bryan Caplan calls " the pessimistic bias, a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the economy’s performance in the recent past, the present, and the future."