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Can the U.S. Divorce Rate be Accurately Assessed?

Family groups and organizations, sociologists and researchers, pollsters and trend analysts – all of these individuals and entities have long focused on the divorce rate in the United States as a central component in understanding American family life.

There is both fascination and frustration in doing so. As to the former, the rate at which couples are divorcing raises additional questions and spurs research in other areas, such as the economy, social mores, and evolving attitudes and notions concerning the family unit itself. As to the latter, researchers have never even been able to forge a consensus on how to accurately measure the divorce rate, even after seeking to do so systematically for more than a century and a half.

For example, the U.S. government has been tracking divorce based on the number of divorces per 1,000 members of the population since virtually the end of the Civil War. This analysis of what is called the “crude divorce rate” yielded a number of 3.5 for the year 2008.

Other methods commonly used, however, produce highly varied outcomes, such as a divorce rate of 10.5 per 1,000 persons when children are not counted in the mix. Proponents of this scheme question why they should be, and maintain that the much higher number is substantially more accurate.

Then, again, others say that the most meaningful measurement yet devised is to simply count only adults over the age of 15 who are married. When that is done, the 2008 divorce rate stands at 20.9 divorces per 1,000 people measured.

A growing number of researchers say that this last method, referred to as the American Community Survey, yields the most accurate result and should be used for analyzing American family trends.

Related Resource: “What is the real divorce rate in the U.S.?” November 20, 2010