Gusher of Texas Oil-Patch Divorces Leads Breakup Trend

For almost a century, farming and oil have driven the economy in the windswept, Texas Panhandle town of Borger. The latest growth industry: divorce law.

The small town, whipsawed by an energy boom and an agriculture bust, registered the largest increase in divorced people in the U.S. during the past five years. The percentage of divorced adults in Borger, home to the world’s largest inland petroleum refinery complex, has almost doubled to 15.2 percent since 2007, according to U.S. Census data compiled by Bloomberg.

Two-thirds of the nation’s cities have registered an increase in the percentage of divorced adults since 2007. The largest gains have occurred in small towns such as Borger during the last two years, as Americans began recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. About 10.9 percent of U.S. adults are divorced, up from 10.5 percent in 2007.

“A bad economy creates a lot of anxiety,” said Alton Abramowitz, a New York family law attorney and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “And when people are anxious, either things get really miserable at home, or people bite their tongues and hunker down.”

During Texas’s epic 2011 drought, the worst single-year dry spell in state history, the percentage of winter wheat in “very poor” condition rose to more than 50 percent from 1 percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While energy has boomed in Borger, the erratic work schedule for oilfield workers has caused marital discord, said Vaavia Edwards, an Amarillo family law attorney.

Meth Roughnecks

“A lot of roughnecks use meth, and they’re gone all the time,” she said. “And the farming and ranching business has just been horrible. There’s nothing. It’s terrible. The economy is just whacko right now.”

Even by the colorful standards of Texas, Borger is a rough place. An epidemic of bootlegging, prostitution and gambling prompted the state’s governor to send the fabled Texas Rangers to restore peace there in 1927. The city’s founder was murdered with his own gun in 1934 by the municipal treasurer, who was annoyed that he hadn’t been bailed out of jail quickly enough. A combination of martial law and state troops brought order to the town just in time for the Dust Bowl to arrive.

FBI statistics show the town of 13,530 had 89 violent crimes per 10,000 people last year, more than double the rate in larger cities such as Austin, 500 miles to the southeast, or El Paso, 500 miles southwest. Only six Texas cities larger than Borger had higher violent-crime rates.

Divorce Capital

With the increase, Borger has the 37th-highest percentage of divorced adults in the nation. The town of Moberly, Missouri, had the most. Census Bureau data show 18.1 percent of people in the central Missouri town are divorced, about twice the figure for nearby Columbia or for Washington and Boston.

The divorce rate in the Moberly area, which has about 25,465 people, has risen from 15.7 percent five years ago. The town’s high percentage of divorced people may be partially caused by the low cost of living that attracts single parents commuting to Columbia and other nearby cities, said Thomas Fuhrman, a Moberly-based human-development specialist for the University of Missouri extension service.

The town, dubbed the “Magic City” because of its explosive growth soon after its founding in 1866, has rebounded from the loss of manufacturing plants in the 1980s to host a half-dozen distribution centers. They include facilities for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Orscheln Farm & Home, according to a January 2010 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Prison Effect

Unemployment fell to 6.8 percent in October after peaking at 12.6 percent in January 2009. Even so, Fuhrman said he doubts the percentage of divorced people will fall soon as children become used to growing up in single-parent homes. He said the presence of a medium-security prison housing 1,800 men also may contribute to the high percentage of divorced people in Moberly.

“It doesn’t help,” he said.

Even with Nevada’s pioneering liberalization of divorce laws, cities there haven’t shown a significant increase in the number of adults with broken marriages, census data show. The number of divorced people in Las Vegas barely grew 0.2 percent to 13.6 percent of the adult population over the five-year period, despite encouragement from the Sin City Chamber of Commerce, which extols the ease of Nevada divorces in an online promotion. The percentage of divorcees in Reno grew 0.4 percent to 14.2 percent of the adult population.

Creative Differences

The percentage of divorced people fell 0.2 percent to 8.6 percent of adults in Los Angeles, where “creative differences” have spelled doom for more than one marriage. In New York, the nation’s largest city and home to once-draconian divorce laws, the percentage of divorced people remained unchanged during the last five years, holding at 7.8 percent.

“We haven’t seen a falloff in business at all,” said Abramowitz, of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. New York was the last state to allow no-fault divorce, removing provisions that required proof of abandonment, adultery or cruel and unusual treatment before filing for divorce. “Things have escalated. Cases are tougher to settle. And now, all it takes is one person to blow a marriage apart.”

Edwards, the Texas family law attorney, said her business has dropped even as the number of divorces has taken off in Borger. She attributed the decline to rulings by the Texas Supreme Court that make it easier for aggrieved spouses to handle their own legal work.

She still expects to regain business lost to people who tried to handle their own divorce -- “fixing and modifying all the screwed-up stuff they do.”

“It’s true,” Edwards said. “He who represents himself has a fool for a client. Or she.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Frank Bass in New York at fbass1@bloomberg.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Flynn McRoberts in Chicago at fmcroberts1@bloomberg.net; Mark McQuillan in Washington at mmcquillan@bloomberg.net.

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