Doubling down

Commenter adam pointed out that I am not alone in challenging Claire Cain Miller’s NY Times article on divorce.  Professor Steven Ruggles of the University of Minnesota has likewise refuted Miller’s claim that the public’s understanding has failed to keep up with what she asserts is settled science on divorce rates:

The article recycles old research based on bad data. As Sheela Kennedy and I demonstrated in our recent article “Breaking Up is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980-2010” Demography (2014), available at, the much-vaunted decline in divorce is an artifact of bad data and poor measurement. As we show, the only reliable data on current U.S. divorce rates derive from the American Community Survey (ACS). Controlling for the aging of the married population, the ACS data reveal a continuing and dramatic increase in the risk of divorce since 1990. The rise of divorce is especially striking among older adults: among those aged 55 to 64, the divorce rate has quadrupled over the past three decades.

The Miller article appears to be based mainly on a working paper by Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that first appeared in 2007 and then was published in an obscure British volume of collected essays in 2011. Wolfers is a contributor to the Upshot, but I don’t believe Miller actually interviewed him. I know he is well aware of more recent research based on new data, and I very much doubt that he would endorse the premise of the Miller article.

In response, Professor Justin Wolfers of the University of Michigan followed up with a defense of Miller’s original article, How We Know the Divorce Rate Is Falling.  Wolfers’ defense meanders around the data, and at times he contradicts himself:

There is no question that the data on divorce, like so much social-science data, are imperfect. It’s a good thing that researchers are pointing out these imperfections, because we will get a clearer picture of reality if we can get better data. But the best evidence all points in the same direction: The old claim that one in two marriages ends in divorce is no longer true.

Of course, we don’t know what will happen in the future. Even if recently married couples are divorcing at lower rates, there is some reason to think that divorce rates among long-married couples will rise.

First he says the lifetime divorce rate (a forward looking number) isn’t 50%.  Then he explains that we can’t know what this number will look like today, because it involves guessing the future.  His only evidence that the forward looking number will probably be lower than 50% is a small decline in early divorce rates.  However, he then points out that the divorce rates for older couples is increasing.

It is important to remember that Wolfers’ article is a defense of Miller’s claim that the science is settled, and divorce rates have declined since the early 1980s.  Wolfers opens his article with:

The divorce rate has been falling for more than three decades. That fact is not news, but it still surprises a lot of people. And so when Claire Cain Miller wrote about the trend for The Upshot this week, several readers asked for more detail, with some citing a Huffington Post article questioning the official Census Bureau data on the trends. As one of the researchers who has studied the issue, I thought it worth digging deeper into the data.

In order to back up Miller’s claim, Wolfers would have to prove that the science really is settled here, and that those who don’t believe that divorce rates have declined for 30 years believe in a “myth”.  Instead Wolfers points to problematic and contradictory data, and argues that none of the data sources available can be trusted to accurately represent current divorce rates.  With this in mind, even with the most charitable possible reading Wolfers failed to defend the core claims in Miller’s article, and therefore failed to support his own thesis.

Professor Ruggles responded to Wolfers’ article as well.  Ruggles pointed out specific flaws in Wolfers’ argument, along with the fact that Wolfers had failed to support his own thesis:

Steven Ruggles Minneapolis Yesterday
Dear Justin,

As we noted in the paper, in the 2006 pretest the Census Bureau found that 7.8% of women who reported getting a divorce in the past year did not actually receive a divorce decree in that period. The pretest was not able, however, to determine what percentage of the women who actually did get a divorce in the past 12 months failed to report it on the ACS. Overcount and undercount would cancel, so the pretest implies a net overcount of less than 7.8%.

If we control for the aging of the married population, divorce risk has gone up 40% since 1980. To erase that, you have to assume that the ACS is off by a factor of two. I don’t buy it. It is much more plausible that the discrepancy lies with your alternative source, the SIPP, which has substantially lower divorce rates than the vital statistics, and where nearly half of the divorce dates are imputed in the most recent data.

The number of demographers who believe that overall divorce risk has declined is small. Other than Stevenson and Wolfers, we identified only Heaton (2002) and Ivers and Stevenson (2010). The consensus of most demographers, as Schoen and Canudas-Romo (2006) put it, “it is premature to believe that the probability of divorce has begun to decline.” You are entitled to argue that ACS is wrong and SIPP is right. Nevertheless, I think you should acknowledge that the decline of divorce narrative is a minority viewpoint among professional demographers.


This entry was posted in Data, Denial, Divorce, Feminists. Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Doubling down

  1. DrTorch says:

    So Justin Wolfers white knights, and embarrasses himself.

    Wonder if Claire Cain Miller accepted his offer to go on a date.

    [D: I believe that Wolfers is still married to Betsey Stevenson.]

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  3. Ag shame, not enough men manning up to run the plantation then, huh? Poor Justin, try harder, no one is buying that cow!

  4. Should be called “Quadrupling Down” by now..

  5. Casey says:

    Take a look at the world around you, at work, in society, in your neighborhood……and honestly tell me that divorce rates aren’t at LEAST 50%.

    This is just gentle propaganda, of pitiful offers of hope that divorce rates are < 50%, to try and entice a few men back to the marriage table.

    Methinks the lipstick on this pig will not get the intended result.

  6. Opus says:

    I always suspect that when something is said to be settled science that the assertion is probably a rhetorical device to win an argument (eight out of ten cats said their owners preferred it). Science is as prone to fraud, wishful thinking and downright mistakes as any other field – if not more so. I have thus been wondering whether rockets work in Space. I know you will laugh at me and refer to Newton’s Third Law but he was never in space so at the very least he never tested his thesis (or Law); however well done with Orion which has, I understand, landed safely in the sea.

    If Divorce rates have declined then there must be a reason for that decline. I am perfectly willing to accept that the deregulation of marriage led to a surge of Divorce and that therefore a decline was thereafter to be expected – and long worked out of the system – but otherwise I cannot think of any factor which would make an appreciable drop in divorce rates.

    I have yet to hear that law firms are noticing a decline in the work for their matrimonial departments. That is of course anecdotal but it is what most people pay regard to in deciding whether to pursue marriage or bemoan their lack of interest from the other sex. Even so, most of the time most people are married (or in an LTR).

  7. Morgan says:

    Feminists on marriage 2.0: “Mission Accomplished”
    Nevermind the data stating otherwise.

  8. new anon says:

    (1) I don’t think anyone but wishful thinkers are buying that the divorce rate is going down.

    (2) Even if it is going down, so what? The decline, even by the most optimistic people, is marginal. Is a 45 or even 40 percent rate that much of an improvement over a 50% rate.

    Would anyone fly if they knew that there was a 40% chance that ONE RANDOM DAY IN THE FUTURE the plane they were on would crash? How about 30%, or 20%, or even 10%?

    I suppose the answer depends on the potential reward, but it would have to be one hell of a reward to justify even that 10% flying risk.

    Why marry if you know there is a 40% chance that ONE RANDOM DAY in the future your marriage will crash and burn?

  9. new anon says:


    “Settled science” is code for “shut up and quit disagreeing with me.”

    When I hear someone use the phrase (or say something like “everyone knows”) then I assume they are blowing smoke until proven otherwise.

  10. Dalrock says:


    If Divorce rates have declined then there must be a reason for that decline. I am perfectly willing to accept that the deregulation of marriage led to a surge of Divorce and that therefore a decline was thereafter to be expected – and long worked out of the system – but otherwise I cannot think of any factor which would make an appreciable drop in divorce rates.

    There are a number of good reasons to expect that divorce rates would decline. Not surprisingly, we have seen a retreat from marriage where the risks of divorce are greatest. This leaves us with a smaller pool of “safer” marriages. Blacks divorce at much higher rates than Whites, for example, and the Black marriage rate has been in steep decline. The same trend is observable for those with and without college degrees. Likewise, the risk of divorce is at its highest when the wife is in her 20s, and we have seen a dramatic retreat from young marriage.

    With this in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if the data showed divorce rates were in decline. In fact, I was surprised when I first saw the NCFMR paper two years ago stating that divorce rates had in fact remained stable since 1990. But at best the jury is still out on this. The problem with both Miller and Wolfer’s NYT articles is they are trying to claim that those who don’t hold what Ruggles points out is the minority opinion are unaware of the state of the science.

  11. Lyn87 says:


    Your point in paragraph 2 is similar to one I made some time ago – but I don’t recall where and I’m unwilling to slog through thousands of posts in dozens of articles to find it. The gist of it was that I crunched three decades worth of numbers regarding marriage and divorce, and concluded that what you said is correct. When no-fault divorce became widespread the divorce rate went up: essentially, the state (as the senior partner within a legal marriage) retroactively re-wrote the contract to favor the spouse who wanted out, and almost always lavishly rewarded the woman no matter who filed. A lot of marriages that would have survived became untenable under the new contract (I would argue that no-fault divorce is the most important characteristic of Marriage 2.0). Once that initial spike of divorces occurred, the rate declined a bit and has been at the current plateau ever since. Demographers may notice micro-trends, but the overall numbers have proven to be extremely stubborn over time. The bottom line is that when one divides the number of divorces in a year by the number of marriages in the same year, the result is usually close to .50. The important fact is that that has tracked consistently – year-after-year – for four decades… since the widespread acceptance of no-fault divorce, about half of all marriages end in courtrooms rather than funeral parlors.

    As Dalrock pointed out earlier, one of the reasons the numbers sometimes appear rosier than they are is that some of the high-divorce states don’t report their numbers consistently, or at all. California is the 600-pound gorilla in the U.S. in that regard. That state simply doesn’t officially count or report divorces any more. Needless to say, as soon as they stopped doing so the “national rate” went down a bit – but that wasn’t indicative of any real decline – it was due to the fact that the state with the most divorces was no longer included in the total.

  12. solitude says:

    Unfortunately these results leave me with two hypotheses that aren’t entirely provable with the current data. The first is that the cohort of children born between 1950 and 59 are among the most unstable in terms of marriage. I’m unsure of what caused this, perhaps hippie values and morality? 2nd wave feminism and changes in divorce law? being raised by parents who experienced the trauma of WWII? environmental lead pollution eventually curbed in the early 70s?

    I’ve often wondered if societies have a pendulum effect in terms of marriage stability. For example, the promiscuity of the Georgian era and the following Victorian era in England. Or the relationship stability in the 20s vs the 40s. Sometimes I wonder how my generation (millennials) will fare in marriage. The delayed marriage is likely a reaction to parental instability.

    The second (alternative) hypothesis is that the divorce rate only appears to decline because millennials don’t get married in the first place. How many out of wedlock births and cohabiting couples exist that would’ve been marriages in a prior time? These groups have extremely high dissolution rates and if included in the divorce data would likely show an evan higher divorce rate.

    I’m not sure where this is all going. Hopefully the irreconcilable female sluts:liberated::male sluts:rapists 3rd wave feminist hook-up culture rhetoric will implode and cause a return to prior morality but we may have to wait another generation.

  13. DeNihilist says:

    Settled science is the last cry of the left on all subjects that are “progressive”, just look at climate change.

    in other news, feminism has saved (yes SAVED) marriage –

  14. TheRhoubbhe says:

    Justin Wolfers ‘feels’ the data ‘points’ in the direction that 1/2 marriages don’t end in divorce,.

    So much for the scientific method where the data collection actually is supposed to prove the hypothesis in question before declaring it a fact; nope, he’ll just use the “feel good” methodology of the feminine imperative to come to defense of the “unbiased” NY Times.

    An economics professor from the University of Michigan should stick to things they are more qualified to comment about, such as is how they are going to pay for their next football coach or beat Ohio State within the next decade.

  15. Opus says:

    Perhaps the arrival of so many South Americans in your country with their more marriage-minded ethos is tilting the Divorce rates downwards thus equalising the poor performance in terms of marital longevity from the black community. Late marriage for the Corporate community can surely only account for a small percentage of marriage – they are far more visible in the medias than their numbers warrant. But is that right? and is it really the case that Georgian England really was more licentious than Victorian England. In the Eighteenth Century most of the English lived in the countryside with lives unchanged since time immemorial; Pamela may have been the 50 Shades of its day but it was surely no more realistic than the story of Anastasia Steele. By the time of Queen Vicky a more moralistic tone prevailed (as Walter Scott made clear when his Aunt returned Pamela saying that now such a book was unreadable) but then the country-folk had come to the town. London however is not all of England and they say that in the Nineteenth Century one in ten women in London were selling their services. We excel in hypocricy.

    The rise in Divorce was very much linked to the relaxing of the rules for Divorce – a rather Oedipus-like case of creating what one seeks to avoid; in this case unhappy marriages. I am just old enough to have been in court (carrying the bundles) at the end of the old system, where Private Detectives gave evidence of having observed adultery in corroboration of the unhappy wife’s allegations thereof. Divorce was both expensive, difficult to obtain and socially frowned upon. Almost overnight all three obstacles to renewed domestic bliss vanished; the floodgates opened, and have remained open.

    Frankly, I am amazed that the Divorce rate is not higher.

  16. TheRhoubbhe says:

    I was being a bit sarcastic TFH. The average public sees these as places in terms of college football and basketball, apart of a multi-billion dollar sports industry, not really as places of education. I honestly can’t blame them given the state of academia.

  17. Tam the Bam says:

    “blah points to problematic and contradictory data, and argues that none of the data sources available can be trusted to accurately represent current blah”

    Hark! Is that the woodnote wild of a “neoclassical endogenous growth” economist? Or the plaintive hooting of an “anthropogenic global warmist climate variabilityist”? Hush ye, lest we disturb it as it goes about its random excretory function.
    Field note: the Common Warmist makes great use of central heating, airconditioning, LandRovers and aeroplanes, thus distinguishing its plumage from that of Oeconomus crappus crappus, who can afford none of these, and always smells of baked beans.

    Oh my giddy aunt! No, I do believe it’s an incredibly rare Marital-Minded Sociologist, must have blown in from North Africa. Check its genitals.

  18. Dalrock says:


    Perhaps the arrival of so many South Americans in your country with their more marriage-minded ethos is tilting the Divorce rates downwards thus equalising the poor performance in terms of marital longevity from the black community.

    In the short term, yes. But in the long term it looks like it will make it worse. The first generation has a slightly lower divorce rate than White Americans, but subsequent generations have a much higher rate. See figure 2 of this paper, which finds White divorce rates at 16.1 per 1000 married women and Black divorce rates at 25.4. Foreign born Hispanics are calculated at 14 and native born Hispanics at 26.8. According to that analysis, native born Hispanics have a higher divorce rate than Blacks.

  19. Tam the Bam says:

    As Dal explained in the blue panel, divorce is inevitably a function of marriage, goes together like a horse and .. horse’s ass.
    Marriage craters, and they expect d.i.v.o.r.c.e. to go north? Okay whatever, there’s no helping some folks. Or are they talking about the D as a proportion of the Splice?

  20. Boxer says:

    despite the best efforts of Rob Fedders to obstruct my conversion of Prof. Perry.

    People like Fedders do so much damage, they may as well be feminists.

  21. Is a 45 or even 40 percent rate that much of an improvement over a 50% rate.

    Yeah, I get a kick out of these people who quibble over percentages as if the 50% mark is some sort of magic threshold. 51% would be a tragedy requiring serious discussion; but if it’s 45%, hey, no problem, that’s practically Victorian!

    Considering what divorce does to children, even 5% should be considered a national crisis. According to the CDC, 6.7% of middle schoolers smoke cigarettes, and they make loads of PSAs badgering parents to talk to their kids about that. Why no PSAs demanding that parents stay married for their kids’ sake?

  22. BC says:

    Great news everyone!

    The risk of dying due to playing Russian Roulette has dropped from 5 in 10 to 4.5 in 10, and may drop further to just 4 in 10 in the near to mid future!

    It’s safe to play now!

  23. Chris says:

    Opus: “Frankly, I am amazed that the Divorce rate is not higher.”

    It probably would be if there was a way for millions of miserable men to get out of their “Cheaper To Keep Her” marriages with their gonads relatively intact. But they instinctively know that they’ll be systematically destroyed if they pull the plug.

  24. Exfernal says:

    A good question: is ‘peak spinster’ already over, or still in the future for the US?

  25. bob says:

    I have also singlehandedly fast-tracked him to the red pill when I saw he was drifting in that direction, despite the best efforts of Rob Fedders to obstruct my conversion of Prof. Perry.

    Now that is a story I’d like to hear more about. Rob Fedders seems like the last guy to obstruct a red-pill conversion. But I only got mine 3 years ago, so i could certainly be missing something.

  26. Ras al Ghul says:

    Exfernal says:

    “A good question: is ‘peak spinster’ already over, or still in the future for the US?”

    We still have a surplus of cats, so we haven’t hit peak spinster yet.

  27. feeriker says:

    Why no PSAs demanding that parents stat married for their kids’ sake?

    While we of course know the answer to this, it would be fascinating (and certainly more than a bit revolting) to hear the hamsterbational rhetoric that the PTB’s propaganda organs would spew in response to such a question.

  28. raycomo1982 says:

    And the Left is always saying how the Right wing is side that ignores science! Pot meet Kettle.

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