Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

All's Fair: War and Other Causes of Divorce from a Beckerian Perspective

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

All's Fair: War and Other Causes of Divorce from a Beckerian Perspective

Article excerpt

DEREK W. LITTLE [*]

ABSTRACT. The authors examine divorce rates in the United States in the 20th century, looking especially at the effects that wars have had on those rates. Gary Becker's theories on the family are the basis for analysis. Of particular interest to the authors is whether or not the scope of the war has an effect upon the rate of divorce. The authors also examine other social changes and events to see how they have affected those rates. Empirical tests show that World War II significantly increased divorce rates, but the rates did not significantly climb because of the Korean War and Vietnam War. World War I is also not significant, although had the United States been involved longer, the results may have been different.

I

Introduction

THE STEREOTYPE IS SO PREVALENT that few persons give it a second thought: Rosie married G.I. Joe in 1942, the night before his transport left for Europe or Asia. She stayed home and worked in a local defense plant (where she became "Rosie the Riveter"), collected Joe's monthly spousal allotment sent to her by the Army, saved a tidy nest-egg during the war, and waited faithfully for her husband to return from battle. By 1947, only a year after his triumphant return, she divorced him. As often happens, however, the stereotype does not give the whole story. In this situation, it does not give much of the story at all. The myth, however, remains, even in some of the academic literature.

In the United States, the divorce rate per 1,000 people rose sharply in the three years after both World War I and World War II (Figure 1). Why it rose is another matter, and one that has already been examined by social scientists. Their studies, however, generally do not scrutinize the phenomenon from an economic point of view in which rational agents respond to changes in the relative prices of incentives, specifically the incentives to remain married.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the postwar divorce rate from an economic point of view developed by Gary Becker. Studies by those in social sciences (in disciplines other than economics) give some important insights into why divorces might occur. However, we believe that the economic perspective helps to more effectively complete the research circle and give larger meaning to what happened 50 years ago-and to our present situation as well.

II

Divorce Rates and the World Wars

AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY, the divorce rate in the United States was negligible compared to the present. For example, in 1910, the U.S. divorce rate per 1,000 population was 0.9. (This compares with today's rate in the United States, of 5.0.) While there have been many social changes which have contributed to this increase, we examine changes in divorce rates that war in general--and World War II in particular--might have helped bring about. At the same time, we probe other possible reasons for the increase in the divorce rate this century, using a Beckerian perspective.

As noted earlier, the divorce rate in the United States was insignificant at the turn of the century (see Figure 1). When World War I broke out in 1914, the rate was 1.0 in the United States (which did not enter the war until the spring of 1917 and did not effectively mobilize troops until fall of that year). The Armistice was signed in November 1918, and the official peace began in mid-1919.

The U.S. divorce rate spiked during and after the war then decreased slightly. Although by 1922 the divorce rate had fallen, it stabilized at a higher ran than before World War I. During the interim years, which saw both the prosperity of the 1920s and the economic downturn of the Great Depression, the U.S. divorce rate slowly climbed until it reached 2.2 per thousand population in 1941. This was the last year the U.S. was at peace before entering the war in December following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. …

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