Recent U.S. divorce rate trend has 'faint echo' of Depression-era pattern

JHU sociologist reacts to study showing post-recession rise in divorces

Conventional wisdom has long suggested that when money gets tight, couples get divorced.

But new research suggests that the conventional wisdom might be wrong.

The U.S. divorce rate tumbled during the recent recession, then ticked back up during the the subsequent recovery, according to a study published in a forthcoming issue of Population Research and Policy Review. The study's author, University of Maryland sociologist Phillip N. Cohen, estimated that between 2009 and 2011, "about 150,000 fewer divorces occurred than would otherwise have been expected," the L.A. Times reported this week.

This trend is certainly puzzling. If financial woes put a strain on marriages, why would couples break up more often when the economy is recovering?

Some might argue—as the National Marriage Project has—that such a decline in divorce was the "silver lining" of the recession. Maybe the bonds of married couples were strengthened by money troubles? But it could also be that people stayed together during the recession simply because they couldn't afford not to.

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, says the recent trend in divorce rates carries a "faint echo" of a Depression-era pattern.

"During the Great Depression," Cherlin says, "divorce declined 25 percent between 1929 and 1933. Then it rose through the '30s. By the '40s, it was clear that the Great Depression didn't prevent divorce but postponed it."

In other words, argues Cherlin, "financial crises change the timing of divorce." They don't prevent them.

Makes sense. If a married couple is having trouble making ends meet, divorce would only compound the problem. Not only would their income be halved, but the unexpected out-of-pocket expenses associated with divorce (court fees, attorney fees, etc.) would surely stretch their shrinking checkbook. When a couple is making difficult financial decisions during a recession, maybe remaining unhappily married is just another financially motivated choice.

Cohen was not ready to draw the same conclusion. From the Times:

Cohen cautioned that the exact reasons behind the economic ebb and flow of divorce were still murky. His study found that unemployment, state by state, had no apparent effect on divorce rates; other research examining earlier periods has found the opposite. Cohen did find that joblessness seemed to cut down divorce for college graduates—but statewide foreclosures pushed up divorce rates for the same group. More research is needed to understand why, he wrote.

Cherlin's work concentrates on the sociology of families. He is the author of several books on marriage, including Marriage Divorce Remarriage, which was published by Harvard University Press in 1992. Last December, Cherlin published a Bloomberg op-ed in which he argues that marriage has become "one more manifestation of the growing economic inequality in American society." The winners in our globalized and automated economy are turning toward marriage, he writes, while the losers—those with lesser educations and lower incomes—are turning away.

Cherlin is currently on leave from Hopkins completing a new book tentatively titled Labors Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of America's Working Class Families from 1800 to Present.