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Divorce and the Business Cycle

INSERT DESCRIPTIONNaum Kazhdan/The New York Times

There’s an interesting discussion over at Room for Debate on how the recession is affecting family life. A key question is whether recessions lead to a rise in divorce or not.
Here’s Betsey Stevenson (my frequent coauthor and significant other):

While the economically vulnerable are in less stable relationships, there is little evidence that the economic cycle drives divorce. The big swings in marriage and divorce follow dramatic social, rather than macroeconomic change. Blame the wars, the sexual revolution, and changes in the meaning of marriage, rather than cyclical ups and downs.

Here’s Barbara Dafoe Whitehead:

The divorce rate soared during the stagflation of the mid-1970’s, continued to rise during the deep blue-collar recession of the early 1980’s, and thereafter stabilized at historically high levels.

And here are the facts (updating Betsey’s and my Journal of Economic Perspectives paper):


The chart shows the two standard ways of measuring the divorce rate, and the shaded areas on the chart highlight the recessions. Contrary to Whitehead’s claim, the divorce rate actually fell during the early 1980’s recession. And she’s wrong to say it stabilized after that, as divorce rates continued to fall. In fact, divorce rates have been falling for the past 30 years. It’s time for social commentators to start to recognize these facts.
To my eye, the most amazing fact in this chart is just how little the divorce rate is affected by the business cycle. The 1970’s recessions didn’t see a sharp uptick in divorce, but rather the continuation of the pre-existing trend. Divorce rates declined during the 1980’s recession and barely changed during either the 1990 or 2001 recessions. And if we examine data over the longer run, again we see that divorce doesn’t seem to move around much with the business cycle:


If anything, the Great Depression suggests that divorce rates may decline during dramatic slowdowns. Unfortunately my charts report only the most recent complete annual data, which are for 2007, while the recession began in December of that year. To learn about the consequences of this recession, we have to turn to the most recent NCHS data. And these data tell us that in seven months through to July 2008, the number of divorces is down about 6 percent compared with the equivalent period in 2007. That is, the ongoing decline in divorce is continuing.