WASHINGTON — In a first-of-its-kind analysis by the Census Bureau, released Thursday, Maine, Alaska, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Nevada, ranked at the top for divorces, while Utah, Wyoming and Arkansas — which had the highest marriage rates — were also higher than average in marital breakups. New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York ranked among the lowest in divorces.
North Dakota ranked among the top states in marriages while posting lower than average divorce rates.
The Census also finds that people are waiting longer before marrying for the first time. In particular, the percentage of women who wed as teenagers has dropped precipitously since 1970, while many men are postponing marriage past their college-age years.
In all, there were 19.1 weddings performed per 1,000 men and 17.6 per 1,000 women across the U.S. in 2009, while divorces became final for 9.2 of every 1,000 men and 9.7 of every 1,000 women.
By region, the South and West had the most marriages, with rates of roughly 19 per 1,000. But they also led in divorces, each at about 10 per 1,000.
The Census Bureau report attributed the lower rates of divorce in the Northeast in part to delayed marriage in those places, which decreased the likelihood of marital discord down the road.
“Surprisingly, the South and West, which we think of as more socially conservative, have higher rates of divorce than does the supposedly liberal East,” said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “The reason is that young adults in the South and West tend to have less education and marry earlier, both of which lead to a higher risk of divorce.”
“The South and West also have many migrants from other parts of the region who have left their social support networks behind. When they have marital problems, they have fewer people to turn to for help,” he added.
As to the age at first marriage, the Census Bureau found that men and women were now joining in wedlock later and across a greater range of ages.
For instance, in 1970, more than half of men, 57 percent, were between the ages of 20 and 24 when they first married. By 2009, the age distribution was much wider, with 24 percent marrying between the ages of 20 and 24, 34 percent marrying between the ages of 25 and 29, 20 percent marrying between the ages of 30 and 34, and 9 percent marrying between the ages of 35 and 39.
Similarly for women, in 1970, 42 percent of women were teens when they married, and by the age of 24 about 88 percent of women had a first marriage. By 2009, the shares had dropped to 7 percent and 38 percent, respectively.
As a whole, since 1970, the median age at first marriage increased from 22.5 years to 28.4 for men and from 20.6 years to 26.5 for women.
Pamela Smock, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, said the rising median age of first marriage is a reflection in part of the proliferation of new types of family groups, including couples who choose to live together and/or have children outside of marriage.
“People are no longer following some lockstep script about when it is time to get married,” she said.
As a whole, marriages are now at a record low, with just 52 percent of adults 18 and over saying they were joined in wedlock, compared with 57 percent in 2000, according to census data released last September. The never-married included 46.3 percent of young adults 25-34 — the first time the share of never-married young adults exceeded those who were married, 44.9 percent, with the rest being divorced or widowed.
Marriages have been declining for years due to rising divorce, more unmarried couples living together and increased job prospects for women. But analysts say younger people also may now be increasingly choosing to delay marriage as they struggle to find work and resist making long-term commitments in the recent recession.
—Recently divorced women and their children who typically lived with them were more financially strained compared with others, having higher poverty rates, lower incomes and greater use of public assistance despite higher rates of participation in the labor force.
—Roughly 1.1 million children, or 1.5 percent of all children, lived in 2009 in the home of a parent who divorced in the previous year.
—Delaware and Wyoming ranked at the top for states with more widowers (5.4 per 1,000 men), while Hawaii had the most widows (10.3 per 1,000 women).
The census analysis is based on 2009 data from the American Community Survey, which sampled 3 million households. It is the first to describe detailed information on marriages and divorces from this survey after the National Center for Health Statistics stopped collecting such data in 1996.