It’s not simply low income that ends marriages. It’s economic instability.
Credit: JGI/Jamie Grill   

Behind every divorce there is a unique and deeply personal history. Unless one is fully acquainted with all sides of the story (and there may be more than two), attempting to apply general observations to individual cases is presumptuous in the extreme. Nevertheless, divorce is also a social phenomenon – one, that in aggregate, is a legitimate public policy issue and for which general observations can be made.

In a data-rich article for the Institute for Family Studies Naomi Cahn and June Carbone examine the striking disparity in (American) divorce rates across different professions:

“A recent report on which occupations have the highest and lowest divorce rates intrigued us. The study analyzed data from the 2015 American Community Survey, and, based on the number of people in a particular occupation who had married at least once, calculated the percentage of people who divorced… for example, librarians have about a 28% chance of divorce, while phlebotomists have approximately a 46% chance, according to this study.”

Actuaries, scientists and clergy are among the professions where divorce rates are lowest; while those at the other end of the scale include bartenders, flight attendants and various kinds of machine operator. For the ten professions most likely to experience divorce, the average divorce rate is close to 50% – more than twice that for the ten professions where divorce is least likely. 

Why should divorce be distributed so unevenly across different occupations? Income level is a good place to start looking for answers:

“People with less income are less likely to be married in the first place, and more likely to be divorced, as a recent IFS study discussed. About 25% of ‘poor’ adults (in households with income below the 20th percentile) aged 18 to 55 are currently married, compared to 39% of working-class adults (in households with income between the 20th and 50th percentiles), and 56% of middle- and upper-class adults (above the 50th percentile). Furthermore, while under one-third of ever-married middle- and upper-class people have ever been divorced, 40% of working-class and poor men and women who have ever been married have also been divorced.”

Are richer people staying together for the sake of their jointly accumulated assets? In crude numbers, they may have more to lose financially from divorce, but that’s far from the only consideration:

“…wealthier people report being happier in their marriages than low-income individuals: as Bloomberg recently reported, 53% of those who describe themselves as lower class rate themselves as happy in marriage, compared to 70% of those who rate themselves as upper class.”

A further complication is that divorce used to be rare for everyone, regardless of income level or occupation. Though divorce rates have risen across society, they have done so to highly unequal extents – part of the ‘coming apart’ phenomenon documented by Charles Murray and others.

Cahn and Carbone suggest it isn’t just the level of income from poorly paid work that is the problem, but also its unreliability:

“We suspect that employment instability, as opposed to low income per se, may be part of the explanation. For those who are not wealthy, marriage has risks as well as benefits. In the United States, the median working-age household has approximately $5,000 in retirement savings, and more than half of Americans have less than $1,000 in the bank. Commitment to a partner with an unstable income—someone who runs up the credit card bills, incurs large health care expenses, or needs to be bailed out of jail can diminish family savings. The commitment marriage entails requires a willingness – legally, financially, and emotionally – to share the couples’ joint resources. For couples with unstable finances, this commitment may be a source of peril.”

This is something that social conservatives must continually bear in mind. It is a fine thing to extol the virtues of marriage (even if the well-to-do opinion-formers most likely to experience its benefits are reluctant to do so); but marriageability requires reliability, which in turn requires a reliable income. 

An economy that fails provide secure jobs for all will be one that continues to come apart.