WaPo’s Divorce-in-the-Downturn Story Needs Data Injection

The Washington Post takes a longish look at another slice of life in the downturn: divorce. This is a story that’s rich in anecdotes, but falls short in a few other departments.

The lede is a keeper:

In the Great Recession, breaking up is hard to do.

And the piece is promising from there:

With housing values depressed and jobs disappearing, divorce has become a luxury beyond the reach of some couples. There is often not enough money to pay for separate households or to hire lawyers, fight over children and go to court. What has always been painful is now desperate and confounding, with a growing number of couples deciding to wait out the economic storm while others take new approaches — such as living together as they separate.

The reader meets people struggling through this hard time—“A divorce can cost as little as $100 on a do-it-yourself basis with little in dispute and $10,000 to $20,000 — or more — for a divorce that ends up in court.”—and a Maryland divorce lawyer who has lots of opened cases with clients who aren’t able to take the next steps because of financial strains. “He has been working in family law for 44 years and says he has never seen a time like this one,” the Post reports.

But the story is short on the kind of data that could hold it all together. There’s this:

Experts say that divorce claims slightly more than 40 percent of marriages. Rates calculated by the National Marriage Project show a modest decline in divorce during 2008, the first year of the recession, when 838,000 cases were granted in 44 states — at a time when growing economic strain might have produced a spike in divorce. A year earlier, 856,000 divorces were finalized. Scores of studies show a link between tough times and divorce.

That looks to me like a 2% decline. Is that a lot? Any available comparisons to previous downturns? Or correlation between past periods of prosperity and the divorce rate?

There’s also this nugget:

At one Woodbridge law firm, 20 to 25 percent of clients seeking a divorce live under the same roof as their estranged spouse to save money as they await court action.

But, again, there’s no context about what portion of clients use that approach during ordinary times.

The Post isn’t the first to write about divorce in the downturn. The New York Times took a turn last month, relying, in part, on the same research organization.

Several studies have been released recently by the National Marriage Project, an institute at the University of Virginia that’s been studying the effect of the downturn on relationships. It published a study in December that found a “silver lining” of the recession: tough times bring a renewed sense of financial dependence on family networks. A spouse is more likely to depend on health care from a spouse, or on in-laws to help finance a mortgage or to assist with child care. And the ones who are hanging tight are retrenching and redeveloping an appreciation for time spent together.

And CBS went all-in on the recent decline in divorces back in December.

Here’s the press release from the National Marriage Project from early December that looks like it got this ball rolling. W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the project, followed up with a piece in the Journal a few days later.

Today’s Post story concludes with a few thoughts from Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who sees similarities between today’s situation and the Great Depression, when divorce rates fell, “only to rise as the country recovered.”

Cherlin said the recession has probably created “a backlog of unhappy married couples who would like to get a divorce soon but can’t afford it,” and he predicted a surge in cases during the first several recovery years. “The longer this severe economic downturn continues,” he said, “the larger the backlog will be.”

Fair enough. He’s an expert, though it would have been nice to learn a bit more about Depression-era divorce rates, again for the sake of comparison.

The social consequences of an economic downturn this severe are certainly an important topic. When the time comes to do the follow-up, hopefully the Post will provide more support for its premise.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.