Booms, Busts, and Divorce

Judith K. Hellerstein and Melinda Sandler Morrill, The BE Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy 11(1), 1-28, August .


For almost a century, anecdotes have suggested that divorce rates decline during recessions. However, until very recently there has been surprisingly little formal empirical evidence on whether such a link exists, let alone its magnitude if it does. Moreover, the anticipated direction of the effect is ambiguous theoretically. Although previous studies have concluded that individual job loss destabilizes marriages, macroeconomic conditions may affect divorce probabilities even for those not directly experiencing a job shock. We add to the few existing contemporaneous studies of the effects of macroeconomic shocks on divorce by conducting an empirical analysis of the relationship between state-level unemployment rates and state-level divorce rates using vital statistics data on divorces in the United States from 1976-2009. We find a significant and robust negative relationship between the unemployment and divorce rates, whereby a one percentage point rise in the unemployment rate is associated with a decrease of 0.043 divorces per one thousand people, or about a one percent fall in the divorce rate. The result that divorce is pro-cyclical is robust to a host of alternative empirical specifications, to disaggregating by state characteristics and time period, to expanding the unemployment series back to 1970, and to using alternative measures of local economic conditions.

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