Urgent: Census Bureau to Stop Studying Marriage and Divorce

JOHN CROUCHBy John Crouch

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. 

There are only 11 days left to comment (as of today, Dec. 19). By Dec. 30, send comments to[email protected] or

Jennifer Jessup,
Departmental Paperwork Clearance Officer,
Department of Commerce,
1401 Constitution Ave., NW, Room 6616,
Washington, D.C. 20230

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 evey 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. Go here to read more  and please consider commenting by December 30.

Post By beverlyw (86 Posts)

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