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April 10, 1999
Column #919


     Last week I reported that ''For the first time in 25 years, the number of American divorces has fallen below 1 million, dropping from 1,153,000 in 1997 to 974,000 in 1998. This is a stunning development... As far back as 1979 there were 1,179,000 divorces and they remained at that stratospheric level for two decades. However in 1998 alone, they dropped by 15%.''

     I regret to say that data is in error.  It was based on a report from the usually trustworthy National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).   However, I was suspicious, and checked back the next day, and asked for proof for the unprecedented plunge. In demographics, a 1 percent change in one year is big.  In fact, NCHS said divorces had only fallen 1.3% from 1979 through 1997.

     I was told was, ''We don't have anyone working on marriage and divorce data anymore, due to budget cuts. My field is births.''  I protested, ''But you published data showing a one-year decline of 15 percent, and I'm asking for evidence.   How much did divorces fall in the Great Lakes States or the South?''  Answer: They grew by 1 percent in the Great Lakes, and fell only 2 percent in the South.  The researcher became equally suspicious.

     Later he called back, admitting sheepishly that NCHS had forgotten to adjust 1998 numbers from the states by multiplying them by 1.187, as the 1997 numbers had been adjusted. Why the adjustment? A couple of decades ago, final divorce data was higher than preliminary data. But final data has not been counted since 1988, and the adjustment is unreliable.  If the 1998 adjustment had been made, there would be 1,156,917 divorces, almost exactly the same as the
1,153,000 of 1997. 

     Presto!  No divorce drop, but a slight increase!

     The sad fact is that the National Center for Health Statistical Mush has no idea how many marriages or divorces there were in either year or any year in the 1990s! 

     Nor does it care.

     It used to have five people studying data supplied by the states, but let them all go, and stopped giving $1.2 million to states to collect the data.  So  California, Texas and Indiana don't even collect the data from counties any more.  NCHS used old data from those states in another adjustment to come up with a national number.

     Now, there are federal employees counting the number of California red-legged frogs and coffin cave mold beetles, two of the 957 ''endangered species.''  But no one counts divorces.

     Why not?  Ken Keppel, a supervisor, said, ''This is the National Center for HEALTH Statistics.  We don't know what the relationship is of marriage and divorce data to health.

     ''You don't?'' I replied in astonishment. ''Let me count the ways.  According to J.J. Lynch who wrote a book, ''The Broken Heart: the Medical Consequences of Loneliness,'' a divorced man is twice as likely to die in any given year from heart disease, stroke, hypertension or cancer as a married man. Death for the divorced is four times more likely via auto accidents and suicide; seven times higher by cirrhosis of the liver and pneumonia; eightfold greater by murder.  And women are two to three times as likely to die of all forms of cancer as married women.

     ''Linda Waite of the University of Chicago says a divorced woman aged 48 has only a 65 percent chance to be alive at age 65, but an 85 percent chance to be living if she is married. The same 20 point differential exists for men    83 percent of married men will live to age 65, but only 63 percent of the divorced.''

     ''Children of divorce are three times as likely as those from intact families to have a child out of wedlock, and six times more likely to commit suicide,'' I said.

     Also, married people are twice as likely as single people to be ''very happy.''  They are also much wealthier. In 1994 a married couple in their 50s had assets of $132,000 while a never-married person is worth only $35,000, a divorced person, $33,600 and a separated person, $7,600.

     Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation comments, ''This Administration clearly regards marriage as a medieval institution whose day has passed. It wants to get on with the family of the future which is children in day care centers.   This is a clear reflection they regard marriage as completely unimportant, a quaint and curious custom from the Middle Ages.

     ''In fact, the family is the foundation of a strong society and of human happiness. It is the original department of Health, Education and Welfare.   We can't begin to strengthen the family unless we know basic data about marriage and divorce.''

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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