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Declining divorce in Jacksonville: Did the Culture of Freedom Initiative make a difference?

Executive Summary

In 2016, the Culture of Freedom Initiative (COFI), a project of The Philanthropy Roundtable launched an efort to strengthen marriage in Jacksonville, Florida. Working with Live the Life, a Florida nonprofit, and a range of churches and other nonprofits, COFI sought to improve marriage and family life in Duval County, the home county for Jacksonville. It sponsored marriage and relationship education programs, public events, and a sustained public campaign on behalf of this mission, reaching more than 11,000 adults per year from 2016-2018, for a total of approximately 50,000 adults in a three-year period. COFI and its partners also sponsored more than 28 million digital impressions, advertising its services and programs, and promoting a marriage friendly message in Duval County during this time period. It did all of this with a budget of approximately $1,750,000 per year from 2016-2018.

COFI coincided with a decline of 24% in the divorce rate per 1,000 persons in Duval County from 2015- 2018. However, because comparison data is only available for other counties and the nation as a whole for the 2015-2017 period, we focus much of this report on trends from 2015-2017. In that time period, the divorce rate in Duval County fell 27%, a markedly larger drop than the divorce rate decline in the U.S. over this same time, which was about 6%; it was also larger than the 10% decline in Florida. Moreover, in this time frame, the divorce decline in Duval County was larger than similar declines in divorce in counties and cities with naval bases across the US, as well as counties in Florida with more than 800,000 residents.

Our statistical analyses comparing divorce trends in Duval County and 29 other demographically comparable counties from 2015-2017, which controlled for a range of socioeconomic factors that might have influenced the divorce rate, indicate that the decline in divorce in Jacksonville was statistically significantly larger than the decline in similar counties. Specifically, our statistical analyses show that from 2015-2017, divorce fell about 21% more in Duval County than it did in comparable counties across the US.

It is important to note that family stability was already improving in Duval County prior to the Culture of Freedom Initiative. However, the 24% decline in the Duval County divorce rate from 2015-2018 represented a substantial acceleration of downward divorce trends in the county. The divorce rate (per thousand inhabitants) had fallen from 6.2 in 2000 to 4.9 in 2010 to 4.1 in 2015. The Culture of Freedom Initiative coincided with a steeper decline. From 2000-2010, the rate fell 21% over a decade, and from 2010- 2015, the rate fell 16% over five years. By contrast, from 2015- 2018, the divorce rate declined by 24% over three years.

There was also a steep decline in divorce in Duval County when measured by the “refined divorce rate”—the number of divorces per 1,000 married people, as opposed to the number of divorces per 1,000 inhabitants. The refined divorce rate fell from 12.00 in 2015 to 8.41 in 2017, a 30% decline. We were able to locate administrative data for 29 other large, comparable counties. In this group, only one county—Erie County, NY—had a larger divorce decline. We also found divorce survey data from the American Community Survey (ACS), which is less reliable than the administrative data, for 61 other counties with 800,000 or more inhabitants. Only two of these counties, New York, New York (Manhattan) and Prince George’s, Maryland, had a steeper decline in their refined divorce rate during 2015-2017. This means the divorce drop for Duval County in this time frame was larger than it was in 97% of the other counties in these two different data sets.

Is the Culture of Freedom Initiative responsible for the dramatic decline in divorce in Duval County from 2015-2018? This report from the Institute for Family Studies suggests that the answer could be yes. We cannot answer the question definitively, as there may have been other factors driving divorce down in Duval County that we were not able to measure. What we can say is that the increase in family stability in Jacksonville during the years of the Culture of Freedom Initiative was larger than the increase in family stability witnessed in the vast majority of other large, comparable counties across the US.

The distinctive contribution of COFI in Jacksonville seems to have been its combination of microtargeted digital marketing with a broad network of religious congregations committed to strengthening marriage. By combining a digital air campaign with an in-person ground campaign, COFI was able to reach a substantial minority of the approximately 331,000 people who are married in Duval County.1 The digital messaging COFI sponsored also conveyed the message that marriage matters to a large number of people in Jacksonville.

The leadership and extensiveness of the on-the-ground network may well account for the much more dramatic decline in Jacksonville than in two other counties—Montgomery County, OH (whose county seat is Dayton) and Maricopa County, AZ (Phoenix)—where COFI also tried to strengthen marriage and family life. In these two counties, COFI was not able to build an extensive countywide, on-the-ground network, and, hence, there is no evidence the efforts had an impact on family stability in Montgomery and Maricopa counties.

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