[Update: It's nice to see my opinion confirmed, with much more understanding, context and background, by an eminent statistician and demographer, Justin Wolfers, in the New York Times! "Census Bureau’s Plan to Cut Marriage and Divorce Questions Has Academics Up in Arms" (12/31/14)]
The U.S. government plans to stop collecting the only divorce rate information that anyone actually cares about: What are our overall chances of divorcing, ever? How long do marriages last? How many children grow up without one parent? What is the divorce rate for people of my age, educational level, etc.? And what can we do about it?
Everything we know about these things comes from Census Bureau reports and non-governmental academic studies, both of which are in turn based on data from the annual "long-form" census, the American Community Survey (ACS), a 40-minute questionnaire sent to 3.54 million households each year.
The U.S. Census Bureau has proposed eliminating all questions on marriage and divorce from the ACS. Of the survey's 72 questions, 7 would be dropped, 5 of which are on marriage and divorce. The official announcement, with considerable background information, appeared in the Federal Register.
Comments are due Dec. 30, 2014. By Dec. 30, send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or
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Background: Why this is so important
The ACS gathers a great deal of information about the individual life experiences and characteristics of a very large sample of the population. So that is where we get information about correlations between marriage and divorce and other factors, such as the recent studies on how education, and age at marriage, affect the chances of divorce. This is also where we get divorce rates for particular cohorts and generations, measurements of the lengths of marriages, divorce rates for second and third marriages, and projections of the lifetime chances of divorce. All these things are surprisingly hard to measure and we need all the information we can get.
The Bureau, in a show of compliance with the Paperwork Reduction Act, analyzed the costs and benefits of each of the Survey's 72 questions, and found these 7 questions to be "Low Cost / Low Value," based on criteria which it explained. "Low Cost" meant that these questions do not bother people, attract complaints, or take much time to answer. "Value" was mostly a matter of how much other federal agencies use the information. The public, social, educational, or international usefulness of the information is not considered "Value", with one only exception: other surveys and studies which use ACS information info for their "sampling frames". Many other questions were "High Cost" -- a plethora which I'd hate to answer, asking for all kinds of income and expense figures -- but they were also legally required, so they are not going anywhere.
The only other source of statistics are annual numbers, which tell you things like "3.6 divorces per 1000 population for the last year we counted". (I.e., 0.72% of us get divorced every year.) That does not translate into intuitively useful information about people's lives, though it's handy for comparing years, states or countries. These statistics on marriages and divorces at the time and place that they happen are collected by local courts, which report them to state vital statistics offices, which then send them to the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the CDC, which publishes them. However, several states, including California, fail to collect or report the information. And more importantly, especially in a country where people move around from state to state, any intelligent analysis of marriage and divorce requires both kinds of information: the CDC's information on what's happening now, where, and the ACS information that tracks people's history, characteristics and movements.
The Vital Statistics Forms that go to the CDC in 80% of divorces actually record the date and place of marriage, number of prior marriages for each spouse, birth dates, birthplaces, education levels, race, number of children, length of separation, and divorce grounds. But nothing is done with this information. No one tabulates it or studies it for all the fascinating correlations it would reveal. But that does not mean that it's OK to abandon the ACS; as a scientifically selected representative sampling, it is both far more useful, and more manageable in size, than the tens of millions of forms that have been collected annually in 80% of all divorces. And besides, the ACS is already in place, and the government admits that these questions are "low cost". Studying, correlating and interpreting the data already collected in the vital statistics process is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but there is no history and no prospect of anyone doing it; and any decision to do so would not be coordinated with the decision now at hand, whether to end this country's most socially useful, and admittedly low-cost, collection of marriage and divorce statistics.
I was alerted to this by an excellent and brief article from the Bowling Green State University / National Center for Family and Marriage Research, via the National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education (NARME). Here it is:
SAVE MARRIAGE IN THE AMERICAN COMMUNITY SURVEY
Just as U.S. marriage rates have reached their lowest level in a century and rates of divorce are high, the Census Bureau has proposed to eliminate questions about marriage, widowhood, and divorce in its Annual American Community Survey (ACS). This must be avoided! If these questions are dropped, the United States will become the only country in the developed world that does not generate annual age-specific rates of marriage and divorce.
The ACS is the ONLY way to estimate divorce for the entire nation and local (county and city) marriage and divorce rates. The National Vital Statistics System does not collect key socioeconomic information, is missing divorce data for one-fifth (20%) of the population of the U.S., and provides no information at the county or city level.
The questions below can be answered only with the ACS:
- In any given year, there are more marriages than divorces in the U.S. In 2013, there were almost two marriages for every one divorce in the U.S.
- The marriage rate has declined and not returned to the pre-recession levels. Divorce has returned to pre-recession rates.
- Yes. The college educated have higher marriage rates and lower divorce rates than their more modestly educated counterparts. The ACS is the best and only source for statistics on the incidence of marriage and divorce across different economic as well as racial and ethnic subgroups.
- From the ACS, we know that nearly one in three Americans who married last year was remarrying. Men have almost a 100% higher remarriage rate than women. No other data provides estimates of remarriage by age, gender, or race/ethnicity.
- Baby Boomers have experienced the highest increase in divorce rates with one in four divorces occurring to persons over age 50. The ACS is the best way to estimate these age patterns.
- Actually, it’s a 12-year itch. Estimates from the ACS indicate roughly half of first marriages end 12 years after walking down the aisle.
- Washington DC has the highest, and Idaho and Utah have among the lowest.
- The ACS will be the only way to estimate levels and trends in same-sex marriage and divorce.
Contact Jennifer Jessup before December 30th objecting to the removal of marriage from the ACS! Email her at email@example.com or mail her at:
- Departmental Paperwork Clearance Officer
Department of Commerce, Room 6616
14th and Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20230
What does the Research Community Say?
Which questions are on the docket to be cut?
The Census proposes to eliminate all five questions in the ACS that describe marital history:
In the past 12 months did this person get—Married?
In the past 12 months did this person get—Widowed
In the past 12 months did this person get—Divorced?
Times Married—How many times has this person been married?
In what year did this person last get married?