Assessment of Survey Data for the Analysis of Marriage and Divorce at the National, State and Local Levels

Publication Date: September 15, 2008


Whether they are assessing options for reforming Social Security, contemplating changes to the tax code, or trying to improve the well-being of children, policy makers require an accurate assessment of trends in marriage, divorce, and other living arrangements. Historically, vital statistics data collected at the state and local levels and consolidated by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) provided the most complete information on marriage and divorce rates. These data were based on administrative records of actual marriages and divorces that occurred in the reporting jurisdictions. In 1996, however, NCHS discontinued funding to states for the collection of detailed marriage and divorce data; NCHS continues to collect counts.

The Administration for Children and Families and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) contracted with the Lewin Group and the Urban Institute to explore options for collecting marriage and divorce information. This report examines the feasibility and potential benefits of using existing survey data sets to provide reliable, timely information on marriage and divorce. It assesses the ability of a variety of data sets to produce marriage and divorce statistics at the national, state, and local levels. The main criterion is whether the existing survey data sets provide or can be modified to provide information on marriage and divorce rates, as was collected under the vital statistics system.

To identify survey data sets that have the greatest potential for collecting marriage and divorce statistics, the research team established five evaluation criteria. These criteria are used to assess the surveys’ overall relevance and potential for providing marriage and divorce rates over time. The criteria are: (1) relevancy—survey data can be used to calculate marriage and divorce rates, (2) reliability—survey design is likely to provide estimates of marriage and divorce rates that match an external source, (3) representativeness—survey captures broad U.S. population and survey provides state and/or local level estimates, (4) ongoing—survey is planned to continue into foreseeable future, and (5) contains correlates of interest—survey includes correlates and outcomes of interest to research and policy communities. Based on these criteria, three data sets are identified as having the greatest potential for measuring marriage and divorce statistics.

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