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Why Rural Coal Families Are Less Likely To Divorce

William Alden
A towboat with coal goes up the Ohio River near Louisville, Ky.

A study published by two Ohio State professors found that rural coal families were less likely than those in metropolitan areas to divorce during years when the coal industry was losing jobs.

Tasha Snyder, an associate professor of human sciences at Ohio State, says she and her co-author Michael Beck compared data from 1990-2000, when the industry was losing jobs, to data from 2000- 2010, when it was growing.

The boom and bust years impacted the country unevenly, they found. That made its way into households, as they tracked differences in marriages in rural counties and more urban areas.

"Prior studies find that better economic conditions lead to in general better family outcomes, worse economic conditions in general, worse family outcomes," Snyder says. "What we find is non-metro counties are better able to weather the worse economic outcomes related to coal employment."

Their theory is that the resilience of rural marriages in the coal industry is attributable to environment.

"That is, in part, perhaps related to what we call like a 'coal culture,'" she says. "The idea of having lived in a community that has coal employment in the coal industry for a long time, these communities are used to boom-and-bust cycles, and so they're better able to weather these things."

While Snyder laughs at the thought of being a marriage counselor, she does say that this study gives important insight for more than just coal families.

"Employment matters, stable jobs matter for families and for stability," Beck says. "And we have had a lot of debate in recent months even just about the whole coal industry and bringing it back and clean coal and all that. We need to think bigger, not just about jobs, but what are the implications of some of these jobs."

To that end, Snyder and Betz are now looking at the shale industry next, hoping to understand how fracking across the country impacts families.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.