NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 2, 2007

Recent Census Bureau data that suggests marital breakup is an increasing threat to American families is wrong, say Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, assistant professors at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.


  • The divorce rate has fallen continuously over the past quarter-century and is now at its lowest level since 1970.
  • While marriage rates are also declining, those marriages that do occur are increasingly more stable.
  • For instance, marriages that began in the 1990s were more likely to celebrate a 10th anniversary than those that started in the 1980s, which, in turn, were also more likely to last than marriages that began back in the 1970s.

Why were so many analysts led astray by the recent data?  Understanding this puzzle requires digging deeper into some rather complex statistics, say Stevenson and Wolfers:

  • The Census Bureau reported that slightly more than half of all marriages occurring between 1975 and 1979 had not made it to their 25th anniversary.
  • But the data come from a survey conducted in mid-2004, and at that time, it had not yet been 25 years since the wedding day of around 10 percent of those whose marriages they surveyed.
  • If one's wedding was in late 1979, it was simply impossible to have celebrated a 25th anniversary when asked in mid-2004.

If the census survey had been conducted six months later, it would have shown that a majority of those married in the second half of 1979 were happily moving into their 26th year of marriage.  Once these marriages are added to the mix, it turns out that a majority of couples who tied the knot from 1975 to 1979 -- about 53 percent -- reached their silver anniversary, say Stevenson and Wolfers.

Source: Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, "Divorced From Reality," New York Times, September 29, 2007.

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