Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Recession's silver lining: falling divorce rate

Christian Science Monitor article "Recession's silver lining: falling divorce rate" (December 7th, 2009) seems celebratory about what appears to be, by its own reckoning, a loss of aggregate utility.

These tough economic times may have at least one positive side effect: they might be encouraging greater family solidarity.

The evidence for this? The US divorce rate fell during the first full year of what might be called the Great Recession. That's the first such decline since 2005.

'Many couples may be rediscovering the long-standing sociological truth that marriage is one of society's best social insurance plans,' said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, in a new report on the state of US marital unions.

In other words, individuals who would have divorced haven't, because they are now too poor to be able to afford the loss of income. The argument for why this impoverished marriage is not welfare improving goes as follows: in a Coaseian sense, no divorce should happen unless the combined desires of both parties are for it to happen--if one partner desired divorce a little (we could say it give them an extra $30,000 a year in happiness) , and the other was vociferously against it (the loss of their partner would cost them $70,000 in unhappiness), then they would simply transfer between $30,000 and $70,000 to stop the divorce. Now, if divorce only happens when both parties gain from a divorce, and we believe that divorce is a normal good (so that people purchase more "divorce" when their income increases), it is true that reducing their income simultaneously reduces the divorce rate and reduces their utility.

The revelation that the Christian Science Monitor offers is that fewer people get divorced in poorer times. This is akin to celebrating individuals switching to public transportation rather than buying cars when they lose their job--those individuals are unambiguously worse off.

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