10 May 2013

Why do U.K. divorce trends differ from those in the U.S.?

In the United Kingdom, divorce and marriage statistics show a somewhat different pattern from those seen in the United States:
Where one or both spouses are marrying for the second time, couples marrying today face an estimated 31% risk of divorce during their lifetime, compared to an estimated 45% risk of divorce amongst couples where both spouses are marrying for the first time.
The first marriage divorce rate is quite close to the U.S. rate, but the second and later marriage lifetime divorce rate in the U.S. is well over 50% leading to an overall average for all marriages of about 50%.

Also, long term marriage in the U.K. have not lost their stability over time:
[T]he divorce rate for couples after they have been married for ten years or more was the same as it was in the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s. A couple who married in 2001 have the same chance of getting divorced after ten or more years of marriage as a couple who married in 1971[.] 
The U.S. trend, starting in about the 1970s, was for the rate of divorce to increase across the board for at least two decades, followed by a social class divergence sometime in the 1990s, with divorce rates (and couples who lived together and had children not marrying at all) at greater rates for working class families while marriage rates recovered and divorce rates fell for college educated couples.

The reasons for the discrepencies aren't entirely clear.

Is the difference due to the social welfare system?

I've explored the hypothesis in many previous posts, that economics is the most powerful driver over large scale trends in marriage and divorce rates, with the likelihood that a husband is unable to be a reliable breadwinner, who earns more than a spouse, and the reality that the spouse is economically dependent upon him, powerfully driving average divorce rates.

One plausible possibility is that the key factor is the social welfare system in the U.K. which differs greatly from that in the United States.  There are several ways this could play out.

Few instances of extreme economic hardship puts less pressure on fragile marriages

The most extreme pressure on a marriage is the sustained unemployment of one or both spouses leaving them unable to support their household.  It is much easier to let the forces of marital interia continue uninterrupted when one's basic economic needs are being met than in periods of great economic hardship that threaten lack of access to health care, homelessness, difficulty paying for food, and the like.  Economic hardship is also a major driver of child abuse and neglect which when it happens is often a powerful push for a spouse to leave a marriage with the abusive or neglectful parent.

The U.K. has a much stronger social safety net than the U.S.  As a result, once people meet the threshold of basic interpersonal compatability once the romance of being newlyweds wears off, U.K. couples are far less likely to face the acute economic stresses increasingly faced by American working class couples who have increasingly faced frequent bouts of unemployment with a very thin and time limited social welfare system to support them over the last forty years or so.  In contrast, upper middle class families, who have reaped the lion's share of economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s in the United States (in contrast to a pattern of shared gains from economic growth in the post-World War II period) have been far less exposed to unemployment risks and have had sufficient savings during this mostly prosperous period to whether the brief periods between good jobs that they did experience.

In the absence of this kind of extreme economic hardships, more divorces in the U.K. are driven by interpersonal incompatability and couples that marry at an older age, including necessarily, on average, couples in second marriages, are less likely to be swept off their feet into these kinds of relationships and more likely to be able to work through them when they arise, because they are more mature.

In the United States, in contrast, where economic hardship drives many divorces, the same vunerability to unemployment that often caused the first divorce is disproportionately represented in the pool of people who are divorced and is likely to recur.

Less pressure to remarry improves the quality of the remarriages that occur anyway

Another factor in the difference, also related to the presence of a stronger social safety net, may be the reality that in the U.S. the need for someone who is divorced to remarry and quickly for economic reasons is far more intense than it is in the U.K. 

A newly divorced single mother with a young child in the United States has a much more difficult time supporting her household than someone like the author of the Harry Potter series of books, J.K. Rowling did - writing her first book while living in public housing and surviving on welfare after leaving her bad marriage in Portugal.  For example, homelessness is a far more real possibility for a woman in this situation in the U.S. than in the U.K.

The upshot of this reality is that many people who would enter into hasty remarriages with spouses deemed acceptable with fairly low standards out of economic necessity in the U.S. might not have remarried at all, or would have the luxury of being more discriminating in a choice of a second spouse in the U.K. than in the U.S.

A greater emphasis on unemployment benefits gives economic value to an unemployed man

A third way that this could play a role is that social welfare benefits are structured differently in the U.K. than in the United States.

In the U.S., eligibility for unemployment benefits is very restrictive, unemployment benefits are short in duration, and the amounts are meager.  Typically, unemployment is available only to employees who are laid off and not to workers who are fired for any meaningful cause, or who quit even if they do so because the conditions of their employment are intolerable.  Once unemployment benefits commence, they can be terminated for fairly trivial failures to pursue work opportunities or for securing almost any new work even if it leaves the worker no better off than receiving unemployment benefits.  The benefits typically last no longer than six months and the amount is typically a quite small percentage of income over a prior time period (reduced greatly if the worker was employed for only part of that time period) subject to a cap that makes this percentage even smaller for anyone who was earning a really solid wage before loosing their job.  These benefits, unlike most other social welfare benefits, are also subject to state and federal income taxation with the former taking a particularly large bite in many Southern states.  The benefits generally do not include any health insurance coverage.

As a result of the features, in normal times, only a small fraction of the unemployed are eligible for unemployment benefits at any given time and those benefits are inadequate for those who are eligible for them.  Household without a husband who is additional potential wage earner in them can access other means tested benefits, like food stamps, WIC, Medicaid and ordinary welfare (TANF, the last time I looked up the acronym) just as easily as households with one, or even more easily. 

For example, the reality of long waiting lists for Section 8 public housing benefits in the United States mean that these benefits are available mostly only for those families who are in poverty continously for a long sustained period, which is not a typical pattern for an intermittently employed working class man who tends to have periods of somewhat higher than poverty line benefits for a while cycling with periods of poverty, requiring a household to constantly reapply for welfare benefits with each new cycle and falling out of line for benefits like public housing benefits that have waiting lists.

In contrast, in most European welfare systems, including that of the United Kingdom, unemployment benefits are more generous, easier to qualify for, and last longer.  So, even when a husband is temporarily unemployed, rather than providing nothing at all, in a welfare system with generous unemployment benefits, the husband's access to these benefits makes him an economic asset to the family rather than an economic zero who increases their cost of living without providing any economic contribution of his own.

Universal health care removes economic pressures to jettison husbands without health insurance

Universal health care in the United Kingdom also creates different incentives than those found in the United States.  In the U.S., middle class jobs frequently provide health insurance, and those in poverty or near poverty can receive Medicaid coverage, but health care is universal (mostly via Medicare) only for the elderly and the low income disabled.  In the U.S., a large share of working class jobs don't provide health insurance and health insurance is very expensive for the self-employed.

Because health care is so expensive in the United States, being poor and thus qualifying for Medicaid coverage provides a benefit that would cost something on the order of $6,000 to $12,000 to obtain with private insurance for a household that has few prospects of securing a middle class job that provides health insurance.  If the household includes a husband who has a working class job that doesn't provide health insurance (at least intermittently), or who is self-employed and has ups and downs of income, this very valuable economic benefit is not available to the family.

In contrast, in the U.K. and in almost every other developed country, health insurance is universal.  This means that a husband who can find a working class job or obtain some self-employment income is adding value to the household, rather than putting its source of valuable government health care benefits at risk.

The availability of universal health care also makes it far less risky to be self-employed.  For example, as a self-employed person, I pay about $12,000 a year for very high deductable ($5,000 per person per year) health insurance coverage for a family of four.  And, if I can't make the pay the premium for even a month or two, I lose it and it becomes quite hard to obtain a comparable new health insurance policy.  This means that I need great confidence that I can afford to pay $1,000 a month more than I would have otherwise needed every single month to make it possible to take the risk of pursuing self-employment.  At the margins, this means that many people who would have higher average income from self-employment can't afford to do so because the income isn't sufficiently regular every single month.  The minimum base of monthly income drives the decision more strongly than the average income.  This means that the poor in the U.S. are more prone to favor welfare reliances over marginal self-employment (and almost no U.S. or foreign welfare system requires beneficiaries to seek self-employment), which again reduces the economic value of having a husband who is able and willing to work but can't find a job in a household.

Other possibilities

There are many other possibilities.  For example, in the relevant time period, the U.K. was rapidly secularizing, while the U.S. remained far more religious. 

The U.S. may value independence and freedom more than the authority respecting British do, leaving couples in the U.K. to put up with marginal marriages out of respect for community norms.

Divorce laws could play a role.

There are surely other possiblities as well.

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