The 1981 peak is partially a result of pent up demand as "no fault" divorce became available state by state. People whose marriages were all but dead for many years were finally able to untie the knot.
Fewer Divorces From Fewer Marriages
But, the long term decline probably has more to do with fewer marriages being formed living fewer to fall apart. Divorce is a lagging indicator of the number of marriages entered into, because most divorces take place within seven years of a marriage.
The number of couples who live together without marrying has increased tenfold since 1960; the marriage rate has dropped by nearly 30 percent in past 25 years; and Americans are waiting about five years longer to marry than they did in 1970.
By the way, while the ratio of marriages to divorces indicate that about half of all marriages end in divorce, and half of all divorces take place within the first seven years, that isn't quite as bleak as it sounds. Half of marriages do not end within seven years. Describing the same facts more optimistically, about 75% of marriages last at least 7 years, and about half of marriages last until death parts the couple. Marriage is still a very stable relationship compared to other relationships in our society. And, a good share of the early divorces are childless marriages, something that imposes a far lower cost on society than divorces involving children.
Proving that even a broken clock is right twice a day, however, Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation accurately points out the problem with the status quo:
Cohabitation is very fragile, and when unmarried parents split, for the child it might as well be a divorce.
The Socioeconomic Marriage Divide
The research cited in the link above is also correct that there is an emerging marriage divide along class lines. Educated middle class couples get married and stay together. But, for the working class, marriage is a fading institution. Marriage is still to a great extent an economic institution, and financial pressure on families puts pressure on marriages.
(The article claims that middle class marriages are also more stable, but I have some doubts about data interpretation there, it may simply be that less affluent couples get married less in the first place, and even if middle class marriages are more stable, it isn't clear to me that the trendline of the ratio of middle class v. less affluent marriage stability is clear.)
Health Insurance, Taxes, Gay Rights and the Marriage Divide
One of the strongest economic incentives to marry is health insurance. I personally know couples who married years before telling their parents because the economics of health care necessitated it. These days, the health care benefits of marriage outweigh the tax benefits. Federal income taxes aren't a major concern to members of the working class and of the middle, middle class, and there are few benefits to marriage for double income couples in high tax brackets.
The health care benefit motive partially explains why middle class people, who have jobs with health insurance marry, while those who lack health insurance don't marry. If you lack health insurance, the next best thing is Medicaid. And, it is far easier to qualify for Medicaid if you aren't married than it is when you are married.
Health insurance benefits are also a major economic impetus behind the gay marriage movement, although certainly not the only one, and indeed, close after health insurance benefits for gays, is respect from the health care establishment for the relationship in matters like visiting hours and contacts with medical professionals treating a partner. The gay community had these lessons thrust upon them by the AIDS epidemic, and this has helped fuel the larger gay rights movement.
Who Bears The Costs of Cohabitation?
The down side of declining marriage rates falls largely upon women who leave cohabitation relationship who have children in the relationship. While child custody and child support laws have been modernized to the point where they are indifferent to the marital status of the parents, marriage provides a divorcing spouse with claims on the couple's property and with rights to alimony that are absent in an unmarried couple.
The lack of property and alimony rights would be fine if modern unmarried couples wer mostly made up of two adults with careers involving comparable earning capacity and a roughly equal division of how the couple's property is owned. But, the reality is that most couples, while hardly fitting the stereotypical housewife for life stereotype, also are a poor fit to the feminist ideal of economic equality of the sexes.
Most women who have children spend time away from their original careers to raise children, either no working at all for a while, or working part-time or in less demanding jobs to make it easier to be a good parent. Most men who have children don't. As a result, women who have children usually make an economic sacrifice in their lifetime earning capacity on behalf of the couple, something that property rights and alimony try to compensate a woman for in a marriage, but something that women outside of marriage who have children can rarely recapture.
The truth of the matter is that property rights and alimony in marriage are already inadequate. On average, women see a big decline in their economic well being when they divorce, relative to that experienced by men who take a modest hit at best, and often end up better off. The hit is even greater for women in a cohabiting couple.
As a result, I personally favor more enforceable and certain alimony rights that tend to produce larger awards within existing divorce law, and also favor a rethinking of the concept of alimony that mostly decouples alimony from marriage, instead looking mostly at economic sacrifices made by co-parents for the benefit of their children when making awards, separate and apart from the actual costs associated with having children in your custody a certain number of nights per year.
Are Working Class Women Economically Irrational?
This doesn't necessarily mean that working class women are being economically irrational when the cohabit rather than marry.
Marital property rights mean little when the couple is unlikely to ever own real estate or accumulate significant financial assets.
Also, cohabitating couples, like married couples, often break up in financial hard times. Getting significant alimony on top of child support from a man who is unemployed or marginally employed in a short term marriage is an iffy proposition, even if the woman has made a great economic sacrifice by leaving a career to stay home with young children for several years. For a working class woman, the deadweight transaction costs of a divorce, like attorneys fees, often outweigh the economic benefits they can expect from a divorce and can also delay their prospects of marrying someone else who comes along and can provide for them financially, something often worth more than trying to squeeze more money from an ex-spouse whose income earning capacity is dubious.
The Assumptions of The Consevative Argument
Conservatives largely claim, at least, to be pro-marriage. Putting aside the mystery of why this would lead them to oppose gay marriage, this stance does have underlying empirical assumptions that, if true, makes a pro-marriage stance sensible.
One empirical assumption of conservatives is that marriage makes couples more likely to stay together than cohabitation. While marriages are more stable than cohabitation relationships, this doesn't mean that the assumption is right. Equally plausible is the theory that the fact of being married has little to do with relationship stability, and that couples in relationships which are already stable in the first place are more likely to get marriaged. If marriage, per se, is a weak factor in keeping couples together, the argument for it is undermined.
If this assumption is wrong, the impact of a breakup is irrelevant to policies designed to support marriage per se.
A second empirical assumption of conservatives is that parents staying together is good for children. This is a very sensitive issue. There is probably not a single classroom at my children's elementary school that doesn't have some children whose parents have divorced.
My wife went to school this week as a volunteer to help children in one of my kid's classes make mother's day gifts. One of the children insisted on making two sets because she "had two mommies" (in this case a mother and a stepmom, although there are some children at my kids' elementary school who are parented by lesbian couples). She was surprised by this, not because there was a child with "two mommies", but because there was only one in that class.
No one disputes that contentious divorce proceedings themselves are bad for children. And, conservatives are right in observing that contentious child custody fights between cohabitants who break up are pretty much just as bad for children. Avoiding those fights is hard, however, because if there is a breakup, there is no magical, one size fits all default resolution that can be imposed without a careful examination of the facts of the particular case.
But, the hard question is whether a bad marriage or cohabitation relationship is also bad for children, maybe even equally bad or worse. Now that China has liberalized its divorce laws, the business of consulting with adults to tell them if their marriages are so bad that they should get divorced is a growth industry, one that it wouldn't hurt Americans to copy.
At some extreme, no one doubts that a deeply physically abuse marriage is better severed than maintained, even for the children. But, there is a huge divide over how bad a marriage should be before the virtues of staying together for the children are outweighed by the virtues of separating for the benefit of both the couple and the children. There is also little doubt among all but the most extreme participants in the debate that children are better off when parents stay together in marriages that are a little bit bad for the parents.
"No fault" divorce relies on adults along to make that decision, imposing a variety of moral hazards (i.e. incentives to help yourself at the expense of others without repurcussions) that equitable property division even in theory, only partially addresses. If parents think a lot about their children's needs before deciding to divorce, this isn't empirically a big issue, if parents disregard their children's needs when deciding to divorce, this is potentially a huge issue.
There is a lot of research out there on the topic, and much of it has serious methodological flaws and is distorted by political agendas of the researchers, often unconsciously. Still, I think it is fair to say that on this point, conservatives are mostly right. The weight of the research tends to show that staying together for the kids, in even pretty bad marriages, is better for the kids than breaking up. (No research in the United States, for obvious reasons, explores the issue of whether plural marriage in a single household would be preferrable to the kids than the de facto plural marriage in separate households that is created by court imposed co-parenting arrangements.)
Still, the cause of the harm from a breakup is also hard to determine. We know, for example, that poverty is bad for kids too. Does the harm to kids from a breakup have more to do with trusting one or both parents into poverty, and thus putting kids into a poverty ridden household at least part of every week, as opposed to spending all of there time in a non-poverty ridden pre-break up household? If so, alimony and child support reform and a stronger social safety net could mitigate the harm of breakups.
The bottom line then, is that there may be some benefit to encouraging marriage, because there may be something to the notion that they do help couples stay together. But, strengthening the stability of all kinds of relationships, particularly by providing financial stability, would probably be better, and so might be mitigating the harm caused when there is a break up, which while currently significant, doesn't necessarily have to be that way if we develop better norms for meeting children's needs in post-breakup relationships.