At the Population Association of America’s annual conference in San Francisco this week, papers on the Great Recession’s impact on families, wealth, children, young adults, older Americans and other realms of life will be presented in at least 10 of the 200-plus sessions. Much of the research is preliminary, but it raises intriguing questions.

Demographic change is not usually a fast-moving phenomenon: Trends such as baby booms, declines in marriage rates or changes in immigration patterns usually unfold over decades. But events like the Great Recession have the power to accelerate the pace, which is why there is a small explosion of research these days into its impacts.

Take divorce, for example. There’s been a recent surge of interest in the topic of whether and how the poor economy has an impact on divorce rates. As with marriage rates and the economic downturn, the evidence is not clear-cut. One complication is that the quality of data about divorce is uneven.

The growing body of work on divorce and the economy reflects a broader concern by journalists and researchers about how hard times may be reshaping American family life. The economy seems to play a substantial role in the increasing number of young adults living with their parents and the general increase in multi-generational households, sometimes called “doubled-up households.” Cohabitation, which has been rising for decades, may have bumped up even more due to unemployment, according to Census Bureau research. There is ample historical evidence and current numbers showing a link between bad economic times and a decrease in births.

Recent Debate on Divorce

So what about divorce? Divorces fell during the Great Depression; maybe they also declined during the Great Recession. Perhaps couples cannot afford to get divorced during hard times—it may be too costly to live separately, one spouse may lose health benefits, divorce itself can be expensive and so forth. But it’s also possible that stress caused by job loss, foreclosure or other economic injury may raise the risk of divorce. Some studies even suggest that hard times undermine the sense of shared goals that shores up a marriage, because couples avoid buying homes or making other investments.

A potentially confusing factor is that the divorce rate has been going down for decades. If it continued to decline during the Great Recession and weak recovery, it would be hard to untangle how much of a role the economy played in the change.

If the divorce rate is going down anyway, one way to analyze how much of that decline is due to the recession is to look at data for states, because their economic performance has varied. Since some states had a worse recession than others, analysis can show whether those states also had more or less change in divorce rates. That’s what University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen did in his paper, “Recession and Divorce in the United States: Economic Conditions and the Odds of Divorce, 2008-2010.”

Cohen’s paper used American Community Survey data to look at recent divorces, making use of the question about whether the respondent was divorced in the past year. He matched those trends against state unemployment trends and foreclosure data, to see whether there were links between a state’s economy and its divorce trend.

His analysis did not find an association between high unemployment and higher divorce rates, contradicting some previous analysis by others. He did find that in areas with high foreclosure rates, divorces rose–though only among people who had some education beyond high school. Perhaps, he suggested, couples with more education react more strongly to tattered real estate markets because they are the most likely to own homes.

Cohen said although his paper finds “some evidence” for a link between divorce rates and the recession, the association can still be considered speculative. His results, he wrote, “should interject a note of caution into the fast-moving discourse on the effects of the recession, which the news media and public have been eager to consume.”

Quality of Divorce Statistics

Muddying the waters is the fact that the quality of divorce statistics is uneven. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) stopped publishing detailed state divorce statistics in 1996. As one report about the collection of state marriage and divorce statistics concludes, those numbers were of varying quality anyway.

Now, NCHS collects summary statistics from states, but at least five states (including California) do not participate, so the numbers are incomplete. Some researchers, including Cohen, are hopeful that the American Community Survey will prove an adequate substitute. The Census Bureau survey, which gathers data from more than 2 million households a year, began asking respondents in 2008 whether they’d been married or divorced within the past year. The ACS asks how many times a person has been married, and the date of last marriage, and includes many questions about demographic characteristics to enable comparisons among groups.

In general, government records have a reputation as a more reliable source of some types of data than are people’s own recollections or survey answers. But demographers are hopeful that the ACS will prove a good source of data about marriage and divorce, and an early evaluation by the Census Bureau indicated that the divorce statistics appeared to match other sources. ACS data showed that the divorce rate declined in 2009 and rose slightly in 2010.

Another way of tracking divorce would be to follow individual couples over time to see which marriages survive. There are federal surveys that do that (for example, the Survey of Income and Program Participation and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics), but their findings for the recession period are not yet available.