October 12 marks the fourth anniversary of when the United States became a “no-fault nation.” On that date in 2010, New York, the last holdout, finally joined the 49 other states in eliminating the need for divorcing couples to state that the dissolution of their marriage was the “fault” of one or the other. Today, every state offers the possibility of a no-fault divorce.
Three years later, the co-chair of The Coalition for Divorce Reform claims that “no-fault divorce has been a disaster,” leading to record numbers of divorces and plummeting rates of marriage. Sociologist Philip Cohen confirms that New York had a big spike in divorce in 2010, from 2.6 to 2.9, as measured by the crude divorce rate. But many researchers have found that although every state that adopted no-fault divorce saw a burst of pent-up divorces in the first few years after passage, divorce rates leveled off thereafter and have actually fallen since no-fault became the norm.
Figuring out divorce and marriage trends is further complicated by the recent foreclosure crisis and the ensuing deep recession. Many studies have shown that job loss and financial strain raise the risk of divorce. But divorce rates fell during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and some observers have claimed that “the silver lining” of this more recent economic crisis has been a similar dip in divorce.
To sort through these conflicting claims, the Council on Contemporary Families asked five researchers to explore recent trends in divorce and marriage for the CCF Symposium on New Inequalities.
Their findings paint a complex picture.
For children of educated parents, family life has actually become more stable in the past 30 years, law professors June Carbone and Naomi Cahn argue. For both white and African-American college graduates – but only for college graduates — the likelihood that a fourteen year-old-girl would still be living with both parents increased between the 1970s and the first decade of the twentieth century, they point out in their paper, “A Class Act? Stability and Instability in Children’s Family Lives.” Poorly-educated and low-income Americans, by contrast, have experienced an increase in family instability, with continued high divorce rates and growing rates of unwed childbearing.
Carbone and Cahn argue that the increased family instability of less-educated Americans stems primarily from growing economic inequality in the U.S. rather than from a reduction in their commitment to their children’s well-being. Between the mid-1970s and the second half of the 2000s, during the very years when divorce and unwed motherhood were becoming more acceptable, mothers with a high school diploma doubled the time they spent with their children. But affluent college graduate mothers were able to increase their time with children even more substantially — by a factor of four to five – and also to ratchet up their spending on enrichment programs, thereby contributing to a widening cycle of inequality in child outcomes.
Researchers Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin add another wrinkle to the story in their paper, “Gray Divorce: A Growing Risk Regardless of Class or Education.” Like Carbone and Cahn, they note that college educated Americans have dramatically lower divorce rates than their less-educated counterparts – but only up to a certain age.
Among couples aged 25-49, the divorce rate for college graduates is about 50 percent lower than the rate for those with a high school diploma. However, the protective effects of education do not seem to last once the children have left home.
Regardless of educational attainment, the divorce rate for couples aged 50 and older has doubled since 1990, and it has more than doubled for married individuals aged 65 and older. An older college graduate, even one in a first marriage, faces essentially the same risk of divorce as the older high school graduate. And, Brown and Lin point out, more than 55 percent of gray divorces involve couples who were married for more than 20 years.
The recent recession and (very modest) recovery complicate the picture even more. In “Divorce and the Recession,” sociologist Philip Cohen points out that although states with higher home foreclosure rates did see an uptick in divorce, overall, the recession inhibited many couples from divorcing, leading to about 150,000 fewer divorces between 2009 and 2011 than might have been expected in view of previous trends. However, the divorce rate has ticked up again since then.
Marriage rates also continued to fall during the recession, but it is possible, though far less certain, that some postponed marriages may be taking place during the recovery. American Community Survey figures show an increase in the absolute number of marriages in 2012, as well as n the marriage rate per 1,000 unmarried women.
The recession had a dramatic impact on the birth rate, which fell for both married and unmarried women and especially sharply for unmarried women under age 35. Black and Hispanic women experienced the largest declines in non-marital birth rates. Nevertheless, the non-marital birth rate of women aged 35 and older continued to increase during both the recession and the recent recovery.
Assessing the impact of these trends on the adults and children involved is also complicated. In earlier research, CCF members Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that states that adopted no-fault divorce experienced, on average, an 8–16 percent decline in female suicides and a 30 percent decline in domestic violence in the next five years. But Brown and Lin point out that late life divorce can have adverse financial and emotional effects on the individuals involved who often do not have time to recoup their social support networks or financial losses.
In fact, older divorced people have only 20 percent of the wealth as older married couples. And on average an individual who was divorced after age 50 has only half the net wealth as a person who was widowed after that age.
Divorce is disruptive and painful for children, who benefit from continuous residence with two collaborative parents. Yet children also benefit from being removed from high-conflict or cold, contemptuous marriages. Previous CCF research has pointed out the difficulty of making hard-and-fast statements about “the” impact of divorce on children, because many family problems predate the divorce, and may even be its cause rather than its consequence. And given the chronic stress in low-income communities, sociologist Kristi Williams has shown that trying to get impoverished single mothers to marry may not be an effective way to improve their children’s well-being.
Taken together, research is showing that “it depends” is often a more accurate answer to questions about trends, causes, and consequences of marriage and divorce rates than the sound bites favored in so much public discourse. But many CCF researchers have been exploring ways to improve people’s marital relationships and their parenting skills, in or out of marriage. Brown and Lin suggest that the next frontier in such research is to address the distinctive issues facing couples in later years, a field of research that has been relatively neglected until now.
The Council on Contemporary Families, based at the University of Miami, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of family researchers and practitioners that seeks to further a national understanding of how America’s families are changing and what is known about the strengths and weaknesses of different family forms and various family interventions.
The Council helps keep journalists informed of notable work on family-related issues via the CCF Network. To join the CCF Network, or for further media assistance, please contact Stephanie Coontz, Co-Chair and Director of Research and Public Education, at email@example.com, cell 360-556-9223.
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