Marriages and Divorces and the COVID-19 Pandemic in the U.S.
There is no doubt the COVID-19 Pandemic effected multiple domains of American’s lives. Specific to marriage and divorce, these effects were immediate creating literal barriers to those marriages and divorces that were already in motion. Later, as the pandemic continued the economic consequences of the illness, and the mitigation measures became more personally relevant and apparent. But at a population level, how did these events effect Americans’ marital behavior? Recent research on the effect of economic downturns on marriages and divorces suggest they lead to declines in both (see Hellerstein & Morrill, 2011; Schaller, 2013). Looking at data on the effects of The Great Recession I found a significant drop in divorces during the crisis followed by a slight uptick following the recovery (Payne, 2014). These findings led to questions regarding the institution of marriage as the pandemic and mitigation measures wane. Also, marriage and divorce were already on a downward track before the pandemic (Westrick-Payne & Manning, 2022), so it is important to consider these trends in assessments of marriage and divorce during the pandemic. If changes in marriage and divorce are evident, will they be short-term, or will they represent longer term shifts in behavior?
The National Center for Family and Marriage Research has been tracking and archiving national, state, and county-level trends in marriage and divorce over time. When the world began to shutter in response to the COVID-19 pandemic we anticipated rippling effects on marriage and divorce and were well positioned to investigate them as they unfolded. Our initial examination was limited to states with published monthly vital statistics for the year 2020 (Arizona, Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, and Oregon). Like estimates of excess mortality, we computed expected numbers of marriages and divorces based on what was observed in the months prior to the pandemic. We then compared how the expected number compared to the number that took place. Overall, the pattern indicated shortfalls in both marriages and divorces compared to what we would have expected. However, it’s important to note that, even among the few states in our case study, we found variation. It appeared, by as early as September of 2020, Arizona had nearly recovered all marriages and divorces.
As more data were released, we were able to expand our investigation in our most recent data viz publication to include marriages in 20 states and divorces in 35. Here again, we found shortfalls–10.7% fewer marriages and 12.3% fewer divorces—compared to what we would have expected given counts in the prior 24 months. Likewise, variation between states persisted with marriage shortfalls as high as 43.7% in Hawaii and 20.3% in Nevada. Regarding divorces, most states (31) posted fewer than expected with South Carolina experiencing the largest shortfall (32.9%).
The most recently released data on marriages and divorces by state by National Center for Health Statistics is consistent with our findings. At the Population Association of America’s 2022 Annual Meeting in April and in the NCFMR Family Profile series we presented estimates of shortfalls and excesses in marriages and divorces based on the NCHS report. Consistent with our prior investigations, we found evidence of a 12% decline overall. Forty-one states and Washington D.C. experienced declines and nine states did not. Hawaii, California, and New York had the largest shortfalls and Texas, and Montana had the largest increases. Although four states did not report divorces in 2020, of those that did we expected nearly 715,000 divorces but only observed about 630,000—a shortfall of 12%. Louisiana and Maryland had the largest shortfalls, 57% and 43%, respectively. There were eight states with no shortfalls, with Illinois and Mississippi leading the pack at 42% and 30%, respectively. Arizona ended 2020 with about 300 more divorces than expected. These findings were remarkably consistent with our predictions with over 231,000 fewer marriages and nearly 85,000 fewer divorces. Further, preliminary estimates of states with available monthly counts in 2021 show a continuation of these trends with fewer marriages in six out of seven states and fewer divorces in four out of five states.
In sum, while some states had recovered in respect to marriages and divorces by the close of 2020, the handful of states with available data for 2021 still indicate possible lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on marriage and divorce in the United States. Larger questions remain. Do these results represent marriages and divorce merely postponed, or will they never occur? Only time will tell how far the ripples will extend.
Source: NCFMR analyses of CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System; U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division Annual Estimates of the Resident Population; U.S. Census Bureau, 2020 American Community Survey, 1-year Experimental PUMS
Krista K. Westrick-Payne, PhD, (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the assistant director for the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, and research affiliate of the Center for Family & Demographic Research both at Bowling Green State University. She is also the data technician for the Henry County Health Department. Trained as a family demographer, her work encompasses a broad range of topics related to marriage, family, place, and health throughout the life course. She also has a particular interest in data visualization. You can follow them on Twitter @kkaypayne. You can follow the NCFMR @NCFMRBGSU
Amato, P. R., & Beattie, B. (2011). Does the unemployment rate affect the divorce rate? An analysis of state data 1960–2005. Social Science Research, 40(3), 705-715.
Hellerstein, J. K., & Morrill, M. S. (2011). Booms, busts, and divorce. The BE Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 11(1).
Payne, K. K. (2014). The Divorce Rate and the Great Recession. Family Profiles, FP-14-19. Bowling Green, OH: National Center for Family & Marriage Research. http://www.bgsu.edu/content/dam/BGSU/college-of- arts-and-sciences/NCFMR/documents/FP/FP-14-19-divorce- rate-recession.pdf
Manning, W. D. & Payne, K. K. (2021). Marriage and divorce decline during the COVID-19 pandemic: A case study of five states. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 7, 1-3. https://doi.org/10.1177/23780231211006976
National Center for Health Statistics. (n.d.). Marriages and Divorces. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/marriage-divorce.htm?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fnchs%2Fmardiv.htm
Schaller, J. (2013). For richer, if not for poorer? Marriage and divorce over the business cycle. Journal of Population Economics, 26(3), 1007-1033.
Westrick-Payne, K. K., Manning, W. D. (2022). Marriage, divorce, and the COVID-19 Pandemic in the U.S. Family Profiles, FP-22-12. Bowling Green, OH: National Center for Family & Marriage Research. https://doi.org/10.25035/ncfmr/fp-22-12
Westrick-Payne, K. K., Manning, W. D., Carlson, L. (2022). Pandemic shortfall in marriages and divorce in the United States. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic Work, 8, 1-3. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/23780231221090192
Westrick-Payne, K. K., Manning, W. D., Carlson, L. (2022). “Marriage and divorce during the COVID-19 pandemic: State-level analysis” Population Association of America, Atlanta, GA.