State policymakers who are interested in taking action on marriage-related issues need to have a good understanding of trends in marriage and divorce in their state. For example, states that aim to reduce their divorce rates by one-third need reliable data on the prevalence of divorce. Thus, there is a growing interest in the quality of state-level vital statistics.
The types and quality of data states collect vary considerably. In the past, the federal government, through the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), provided funds to states to help them collect and code marriage and divorce statistics, which were sent to NCHS to help calculate national marriage and divorce rates. Resources have not been available for NCHS to continue to assist the states in the collection of this data. We examined the level of detail of state-reported marriage and divorce data.
Reports sent to NCHS reveal a wide range in the level and quality of marriage and divorce data detail. Information on marriage data for 31 states and divorce data for 29 states was available. With regard to marriage data, 11 states report fairly limited information, such as age, county of residence, and race.45 Twenty states have information on these variables, plus others such as previous marital status and education of the bride and groom.46 States generally tend to have more detailed divorce data. Five states have limited data on the number of divorces and county of residence.47 The remaining 24 include information such as duration of marriage, number of minor children, number of previous marriages, and legal grounds for decree. (Table 8 in the detailed matrices provides additional information on state policies.)
Beyond general data collection, seven states are taking initiatives to improve their vital statistics on marriage and divorce.48 One example is Oklahoma, which as part of its broad-scale marriage initiative, is planning to improve the data-gathering system to better document marriages and divorces in the state. The state also proposed a bill in 2001 that would have created a system to monitor marriages and divorces in Oklahoma, but it failed. Alabama is transferring responsibility for marriage licenses from judicial officers to the state registrar of vital statistics.