Saturday, May 21, 2011

Marriage In America, Part II: Some Numbers And Possible Trends

In a comment yesterday, Alan said the following:
The divorce rate among conservative christians is higher than for any other faith group, and higher than for agnostics and atheists. I can only assume they're not getting much of anything from their churches regarding divorce. (Evangelicals and fundamentalists show a 34% divorce rate vs. 25% for mainline Protestants, 24% for Mormons, 21% for Catholics.)
Those numbers come from a 1999 survey by the Barna Group, a research and consulting organization that does work for religious organizations and around religious issues. From a site reporting the data:
A recent study by the Barna Research Group throws extreme doubt on these estimates. Barna released the results of their poll about divorce on 1999-DEC-21. 1 They had interviewed 3,854 adults from the 48 contiguous states. The margin of error is ±2 percentage points. The survey found:

11% of the adult population is currently divorced.

25% of adults have had at least one divorce during their lifetime.

Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significantly higher than for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and Agnostics experience.


Barna report: Variation in divorce rates among Christian faith groups:
Denomination (in order of decreasing divorce rate)

% who have been divorced
Non-denominational ** 34%
Baptists 29%
Mainline Protestants 25%
Mormons 24%
Catholics 21%
Lutherans 21%

** Barna uses the term "non-denominational" to refer to Evangelical Christian congregations that are not affiliated with a specific denomination. The vast majority are fundamentalist in their theological beliefs. More info.

Barna's results verified findings of earlier polls: that conservative Protestant Christians, on average, have the highest divorce rate, while mainline Christians have a much lower rate. They found some new information as well: that atheists and agnostics have the lowest divorce rate of all. George Barna commented that the results raise "questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families." The data challenge "the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriage."
Before returning to some reflections on these numbers, here's one last set of numbers, divorce by national region:
The Barna Group study found:
Area % are or have been divorced
South 27%
Midwest 27%
West 26%
Northeast 19%

The Associated Press computed divorce statistics from data supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health.4 They found that Nevada had the highest divorce rate, at 8.5 divorces per 1,000 people in 1998. Nevada has had a reputation as a quickie divorce location for decades. People from other states visited Nevada, fulfilled their residency requirements, got divorced and returned home single.

The data showed that the highest divorce rates were found in the Bible Belt. "Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in frequency of divorce...the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average" of 4.2/1000 people.
Reflecting on the higher divorce rate among self-declared evangelicals, the group's leader, George Barna, said the following:
While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.(emphasis added)
Against this background, more recent research has found a general social trend away from marriage:
Between 2000 and 2009, the share of young adults ages 25 to 34 who are married dropped 10 percentage points, from 55 percent to 45 percent, according to ACS data.1 During the same period, the percentage who have never been married increased sharply, from 34 percent to 46 percent. In a dramatic reversal, the proportion of young adults in the United States who have never been married now exceeds those who are married.


Many people who are classified as single are actually in cohabiting relationships with opposite- or same-sex partners. In fact, the sharp decline in marriage has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the number of cohabiting couples, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in September, 2010.4 Cohabitation has been on the rise for several decades, but the Census Bureau links the recent increase in cohabiting couples to rising unemployment rates and growing economic uncertainty, especially among young men. Given the scope of the recent recession, many more couples are likely to choose cohabitation over marriage in the coming years.


Marriage used to be a near-universal phenomenon in the United States. Estimates from the mid-1960s show marriage levels of 80 percent or more among young adults ages 25 to 34. Starting in the 1970s, several factors contributed to a steady decline in marriage, including rising divorce rates, an increase in women's educational attainment and labor force participation, and a rise in cohabitation as an alternative or precursor to marriage. Although marriage rates have dropped among young adults, it is important to note that most young adults will go on to marry later in life. The probability of an adult getting married at some point during their lifetime is still nearly 90 percent.7

Another factor contributing to the decline in marriage rates, especially for less educated groups, is the rise in women's earnings relative to men. Family demographers point out that as women's wages have increased, fewer women rely on a spouse or partner to provide a weekly paycheck. Women now outnumber men in U.S. colleges, and a recent report by the Pew Research Center showed that there is a rapidly growing number of women who outearn their husbands.8 Demographer Andrew Cherlin argues that women's higher earning capacity, and the declining economic prospects of young men without a college degree, are key factors contributing to the decline in marriage in recent years.9 The recession has exacerbated this trend because of its disproportionate impact on men with fewer job skills and less education.10


These trends are significant because marriage is associated with many benefits for families and individuals, including higher income, better health, and longer life expectancy. One reason for these benefits may be that people with higher potential earnings and better health are "selected" into marriage, resulting in better outcomes for married couples. However, most researchers agree that marriage also has an independent, positive effect on well-being.11 Therefore, the recent decline in marriage may contribute to worse outcomes for less educated individuals, beyond those resulting from the recent recession.

The decline in marriage may also affect conditions for the younger generation, because of the growing number of children born to unmarried parents. In 2008, nonmarital births accounted for 41 percent of all births in the United States. Although roughly half of these nonmarital births are to cohabiting couples, these unions tend to be less stable and have fewer economic resources compared with married couples.12 Therefore, declining marriage rates put more children at risk of growing up poor, which can have lasting consequences for their health and future economic prospects.13
So, marriage seems to be going the way of the horse-drawn-carriage, the street car, and the rotary-dial phone. While I question some of the assumptions in the last two quoted paragraphs - in particular, if couples cohabit and raise children together, it seems to me considering these children as part of "single-parent households" with a greater tendency toward social dysfunction is questionable - overall, the general trend away from marriage as the heart of our social glue is important. Before we start whining about how destructive same-sex marriage may be, it would be nice if we could at least make ourselves aware of the already precarious state of the institution.

Virtual Tin Cup

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