Changes in Marriage Rates

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Written by: Director Robert Groves

A friend of mine used to tell the joke about a man standing on the corner, clapping his hands continuously. A passer-by asked him why he was clapping his hands – “To keep the elephants away.” The passer-by said, “But there aren’t any elephants here.” The man: “See, it’s working.”

What causes a change in the value of a statistic is often left to similar speculation.

We had an illustration of that in a recent news story about the 2009 American Community Survey estimates showing a decline in the number of persons currently married. The story asserted that the decline in the number of marriages was directly related to the current economic downturn.

Many factors can affect the estimates of the number and proportion of people currently married. For example, declining numbers could reflect the passing of members of an older generation that had higher marriage rates. A look at long term trends confirms that the proportion of people who are married is on the decline in this country, but it has been for decades (this can be calculated from 1950 using the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, historical time series table MS-1).

The impact of an external event, such as an economic recession, can’t easily be teased out of the change over time. It would be useful to such inference to see whether persons considering marriage before and after the recession were making different decisions. It would be useful to know whether those couples most affected by the recession (e.g., losing a job, having a home foreclosed), were more prone to put off marriage relative to those unaffected by the recession. But these estimates were not part of the ACS report.

Statistical estimates are critical to understanding our nation, who we are and how we live. We just need to take care that we understand what they can and cannot tell us about our country.

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11 Responses to Changes in Marriage Rates

  1. Lisa says:

    Excellent metaphor to describe what I see all too often. People love taking statistics so far off the beaten path sometimes, its incredible. I just finished watching a video from Hans Rosling (a famed statistician) and it was really enlightening. I thought it had relevance to what you are saying because he shows how we can look differently at data and how some presentations of statistics can be skewed and confusing.

  2. Lee says:

    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.

  3. Sara says:

    I must say that I agree with Lee above…with the worldwide recession marriage I feel has been put on the back burner for most couples and cohabitation has become even more popular than ever.

  4. I also agree with Lee.. you will see a lot of cohabitatiomn very soon.

  5. I totally love the way you narrated the joke! haha
    It was so hilarious. After I’ve read it, I’v imagined Heath Ledger’s role “joker” saying that joke.

  6. Good elephant joke. Sounds just like government.
    Present company excluded as always. 🙂

  7. ScottGanim says:

    As a Cohabitation I agree with you @Lee. We have put marriage off because of our financial situation. We feel with so many marriages failing we want to almost give it a “test run” and live together. Once we sort everything out we will go ahead with our marriage but it is a mutual decision that I feel is the best for the both of us.

  8. I believe religion is a big contributing factor for two individuals to decide on marriage because for many, the sharing and mingling of faith and belief is paramount to the success of a marriage.

  9. Data by itself cannot describe why a particular event is happening. It only can conclude that something may or may not have taken place. In the case of declining marriages, there are several factors, not the least of which includes economics. But there are several other factors as well. Put simply, more people do not believe marriage is important for cultural, religious, financial, and other reasons.
    Still, it’s a great metric that initiates lots of discussion.

  10. I completely agree, people look at same thing and see differently. Especially the case with statistics. I’ve just read a great book called Freakonomics, that perfectly explains this.

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