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Bad math skews divorce estimates, statistician says

It's been widely said and often repeated in Minnesota and elsewhere that the rate of divorce in the United States is about 50 percent. That is, half of all marriages end in divorce. But is that accurate?

There can be no denying that divorce is common but how prevalent it is remains something of a mystery. On one hand you have calculations that show that divorces have been on the decline since the early 1980s. And if current trends continue, statisticians say the numbers will show that only about one-third of marriages end in divorce.

The problem with the higher estimate, according to one data master, is that it is based on bad math using the numbers of the federal government's American Community Survey. He observes that the practice has been to take the number of divorces in any given year and divide them by the number of marriages in that same year.

That's bad math because the people who divorced typically are not the same people who married. Recognizing the fault in the figures, statistician Nathan Yau took another approach and is able to show visually how divorce rates vary for different demographic groups as you look at the numbers over lifetimes.

For example, he found that among those who have a high school education or less, about 39 percent of men have divorced or remarried in their lives. The rate is about 37 percent for women. The comparison of divorce or remarriage rates drops among those with a bachelor's degree: 28 percent for men and 29 percent for women.

If you look at the lifetime numbers by race, white men and women divorced or remarried at rates lower than blacks. Hispanic couples divorced or remarried at even lower rates -- 27 percent of men and 30 percent of women.

Asian men and women recorded the lowest rates of divorce and remarriage while Native American couples had the highest at 45 percent of women, compared with 44 percent of men.

Some notables of past centuries have offered that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. What's true is that divorces happen. When they do, the complexities of the process are the same for whoever is going through it and it's best to consult experienced legal counsel to protect rights.

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