Item from the Smart Marriages Archive, reproduced in the Divorce Statistics Collection

Researchers deplore dearth of statistics about marriage

By Cheryl Wetzstein THE WASHINGTON TIMES August 31, 1999

Data on the vital statistics of marriage is drying up and no relief is in
sight, says a growing group of researchers and social scientists. For
instance:

-Oklahoma policy-makers would like to lower their state's high divorce
rate, but they can't tell if marrying young -- as many Oklahoma couples
seem to do -- leads to divorce. There's no national data to guide the
policy-makers.

-Researchers would like to verify which state has the longest marriages,
how old people are when they divorce, and how many children are affected
by divorce each year. But there's no data.

-Futurists like Sandy Burchsted of Houston are in an even bigger bind.
Ms. Burchsted, who is preparing a book on marriage 100 years from now,
believes that "serial monogamy" is slowly displacing traditional
marriage, but proving even a megatrend like this will be difficult
without data.

Not only is current marriage data meager, but "there's very little
written or even discussed about marriage in the future," she says.

These researchers say the dearth of data on marriage and divorce is about
to get worse. Next year, for the first time in more than 100 years, the
U.S. Census will not ask every household about marital status.

Instead, only 17 percent of households will be asked this vital question.

This omission dismays researchers like Bonnie Braun, a family life
specialist at the University of Maryland at College Park.

"The census data has been the one consistent piece of data we could all
use over time. Especially with trends, we had the same thing to compare
to," says Mrs. Braun.

"When I think about them leaving [data collection] up to states,
individuals or universities, you are going to have so much variation that
you're not going to be able to make the same kind of comparisons," she
adds. "It really is of concern to us."

Some observers in Congress are also concerned.

"There's a growing understanding that nothing is more critical than
marital status" when it comes to social pathologies, says Michael
Schwartz, administrative director for Rep. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma
Republican. "Now is not the time to eliminate that data."

But Congress has played a pivotal role in creating the data dearth after
signing off on the changes in the 2000 Census. Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas
Republican, is trying to remedy the situation by asking the Senate to
create a committee to examine the American culture and its effects on
family and society. A top priority of the proposed committee would be to
"explore holes in data collection" on family structure and function,
according to his office.

Beyond this, however, there aren't any immediate efforts to change
federal data-gathering techniques. "It's still in the discussion stage,"
said one House aide.

Observers outside Capitol Hill say Congress has ample authority to lead
on this issue. It can commission studies, pass laws requiring collection
of marital status and related data and set uniform data collection
standards for states.

It could also tell the National Center for Health Statistics to resume
collecting detailed marriage and divorce statistics, which it stopped
doing in 1996. Congress should give the NCHS the funds to do so, the
observers hasten to add, noting that the center abandoned its marriage
and divorce efforts because of budget constraints.

Marriage researchers need to lobby for their needs, says Theodora Ooms, a
marriage expert who has been struggling to find data to help state
policy-makers answer their marriage and divorce questions.

Traditionally, Mrs. Ooms says, although many public and private groups
use marriage data, "there are no strong constituents who have a clear
stake in these issues.

"Thus, there has been virtually no inside or outside pressure to improve"
the collection of marriage and divorce data, she says.

In addition, state and national public health departments have not viewed
marriage as a public health concern and made it a low priority in data
collection, she says.

"It is essential that the federal government reverse current policy and
reinvest in helping states collect uniform, consistent and useful data on
marriage and divorce," says Mrs. Ooms, who is urging Congress to
commission a study of marriage and divorce statistics, how they relate to
census data, and how they can be improved.

Patrick Fagan, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, suspects a "radical
liberal agenda" is playing a role in the downgrading of marriage and
divorce data collection.

"Marriage is critical to the well-being of children, but elitists in
academia and government hate to hear that," he says. They have therefore,
he says, focused on other, less important factors affecting children,
such as environment or family income.

A prime example of this misunderstanding is a new report on children's
well-being issued by 18 federal agencies, says Mr. Fagan.

The report barely mentions family structure even though "divorce is the
leading single thing that pushes kids into poverty," he says.

Authors of the interagency study, "America's Children: Key National
Indicators of Well-being," agree that "current data collection systems do
not provide enough background information on children's lives, their
families and their caregivers."

More data on family structure is needed, as well as information on how
and where children spend their time, the report's authors say.

Researchers may be unhappy that the 2000 census will no longer ask every
adult American about their marital status, but census experts note that
this change couldn't have happened without Congress' approval.

The Census Bureau showed Congress its lists of 2000 Census questions in
April 1998, and Congress approved them, says TerriAnn Lowenthal, a
consultant on the census.

The marital-status question, which asks adults if they are "now married,
widowed, separated, divorced or never married," was dropped from the 2000
Census short form, which will go an estimated 120 million households. The
official reason is there was no law mandating it. Questions on race and
ethnicity were retained.

This is the first time since 1880 the marriage question won't be asked of
every household, said one congressional aide.

The question, however, is maintained on the long form, which goes to 17
percent of households, or around 20 million households.

Earlier this year, several members of Congress considered introducing
legislation to return the martial-status question to the short form,
aides said.

But making changes now in the 2000 census is "almost inconceivable,
operationally," says Ms. Lowenthal. Some 200 million census forms,
including those in foreign languages, are now being addressed. Reprinting
the forms would likely cost more than $100 million and even delay the
census, which is required by law to occur April 1, experts say.

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