January 2017

IZA DP No. 10503: Marital Instability in the United States: Trends, Driving Forces, and Implications for Children

Evelyn L. Lehrer, Yeon Jeong Son

forthcoming in: Oxford Handbook on the Economics of Women

This paper surveys some of the main strands in the recent literature on the economics of divorce, with a focus on U.S. studies. We begin with a discussion of changes over time in the divorce rate and the widening gap in marital instability by socioeconomic status. We review the role of age at entry into first marriage, including recent analyses that find strikingly different relationships by race and ethnicity. Compared to other developed economies, the divorce rate in the U.S. is exceptionally high. We offer possible explanations, including the roles of theologically conservative religions (which promote early entry into motherhood and marriage, and low female education), and the high levels of both income inequality and teen fertility in the U.S. We review the effects of divorce reforms. While such reforms have made it easier for women to leave violent marriages, lack of an ability to be economically self sufficient remains an important barrier for many women trapped in such marriages. In light of this, we discuss the importance of caution in interpreting research findings: a high level of marital stability is not always the best outcome. Finally, we review the literature on the effects of divorce on the well-being of children and the role of child support policies.