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 and follow-up contacts reveal a wide range in the level and quality of marriage and divorce data detail.(54) We had information from 50 states.(55) (Table 9 in the detailed matrices provides additional information on state policies.) Two states reported that they do not collect data on marriage or divorce;(56) a third no longer publishes statistics because they are deemed unreliable.(57) For states that publish data, 13 reported fairly limited information on marriage, such as the total number of marriages, the marriage rate, and county or region of occurrence.(58) Eleven states include some type of demographic information in addition to basic statistics, such as age and/or race of the bride and groom.(59) Twenty-three states include more detailed information, such as previous marital status.
Divorce data was generally less detailed that marriage data. Two states that report marriage data noted that their divorce data was unreliable because courts are either not mandated to provide data or do not report it consistently.(60) Another state that publishes marriage data does not publish any data on divorces.(61) Of the states that publish divorce data, 19 report basic information, such as the number of divorces and rates.(62) Twenty-five provide more detail, including age and race, the number of minor children, length of marriage, number of previous marriages, and grounds for divorce.
Two states (North Dakota and Tennessee) note that their systems can provide more detailed marriage and divorce information beyond the numbers and rates generally reported. Finally, Pennsylvania is changing its system to collect summary data only, starting in 2002.(63)
Beyond general data collection, nine states have initiatives to improve their vital statistics on marriage and divorce.(64) One example is Oklahoma, which as part of its larger 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. Rhode Island plans to implement an electronic vital registration system. The marriage module would enable the local registrar to enter the marriage license information into the centralized database at the state office, print out the license for the couple, electronically track registration of the marriage record and provide a statistical database.(65)