The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
As an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University, I was encouraged by a professor to research the economic costs of divorce to the State of Utah specifically and to society at large. Unknown at the time, this small project would take on a life of its own. Six years later, after compiling mounds of data and statistics and making numerous phone calls to state agencies, the fruit of my labors were published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues.
My article provided an overview of the estimated economic costs of divorce to individuals, communities, and state and federal governments, which I pegged at $33.3 billion annually. Two years later the Institute for American Values published a larger report on the broad implications not just of divorce but also unwed childbearing, “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States.” This more comprehensive report conservatively estimated that family fragmentation costs taxpayers a minimum of $112 billion annually. As the report explains: “These costs arise from increased taxpayer expenditures for antipoverty, criminal justice, and education programs, and through lower levels of taxes paid by individuals who, as adults, earn less because of reduced opportunities as a result of having been more likely to grow up in poverty.”
The reasons for these public costs of divorce should be obvious. When parents fail to marry or when marriages end in divorce, many mothers and their children become dependent on government-funded assistance programs to compensate for economic resources that would normally be provided by a married father in the home. Parents—especially never-married or divorced mothers—are more likely to turn to government-funded programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) for assistance. They are also more likely to rely on Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Other taxpayer-financed initiatives include housing assistance, child welfare programs, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Head Start, and school breakfast and lunch programs. Indirect public costs arise from criminality and delinquency, the rates of which increase as divorce and unwed birthrates increase. Not only do single men commit more crimes than their married peers, but boys raised by single or divorced parents, relative to other household arrangements, are more likely to commit crimes in their teenage and young-adult years.
The premise of these two studies is clear: society has a vested interest in seeing more adults enter into marriage and staying married, as well as an interest in seeing fewer adults divorce, live outside of marriage, or bear children out of wedlock. Marriage is not simply a private relationship. It is a public and social institution that, when entered into as a life-long endeavor, generates an unappreciated level of human and social capital. The social, not just the economic, stakes could not be higher.
Yet as the corrosive nature of marital dissolution has become clearer than ever, the unprecedented levels of family instability and divorce in the United States show no sign of abating. National data indicate that the proportion of ever-married adults who have been divorced doubled from 17 percent to 34 percent between 1972 and 1998. Furthermore, while the divorce rate may have moderated since the 1990s, it is not decreasing. According to Paul Amato, “If one includes separations that do not end in divorce, then the current rate of marital disruption is about 50 percent—a rate that has not declined during the last quarter century.”
Surely society can manage when the incidence of divorce remains small. Divorce is often the lesser of two evils when adultery or physical violence breaks the marital bond, but these causes of divorce have been found to be less common than is presumed. One recent national survey cites “lack of commitment” and “too much arguing” as the most common reasons for divorce. What, therefore, happens when society continues to experience an unhealthy number of divorces, as in the case of the United States since the 1970s, when countless marital breakups are for less-than-serious reasons and could be, with some effort, avoided?
One of the many ironies of divorce is that outcomes, especially for children, are worse in divorce cases in which the marriage is considered low-conflict (which represent the majority of divorce cases) than in cases of divorce where the marriage is considered high-conflict. Those outcomes include but are not limited to higher levels of depression as well as lower levels of love, commitment, and trust in their future relationships with the opposite sex. Consequently, the underlying social, emotional, and economic consequences have become far greater under the present regime of widespread divorce for any reason than before 1970 when divorces were granted only in limited circumstances. It is these costs of divorce to children, parents, and society—downplayed not only by divorcing parents but also by social workers, counselors, the courts, and policymakers—that this essay seeks to highlight.
The Physical Absence of Parents
Perhaps the most significant effect of divorce on children is the loss of a positive adult role model in their life because of the physical departure of one parent—the father in more than 80 percent of divorces. Both mothers and fathers represent indispensable assets for the healthy development of children, as parents naturally provide the emotional support, time, guidance, protection, supervision, and affection that children need. However, when divorce breaks a family, both the quality and quantity of contact between the noncustodial parent and children diminish, often resulting in fragile emotional ties to parents, especially fathers. Teenagers of divorced parents are particularly likely to report being less close to their parents.
Having married parents, on the other hand, makes it more likely that children will develop positive assets that will make it more likely for them to succeed in life. In What Kids Need to Succeed, the authors point out—based on responses of more than 100,000 students from a variety of family structures—children are more likely to succeed in life if they have acquired several developmental assets. Some of these include family support, positive family communication, constructive use of time, positive identity and values, self-esteem, and parent involvement in schooling. More often than not, parental divorce erodes these assets.
Especially among mothers, divorce often results in the need to secure employment, work a second job, work longer hours, or return to college to acquire skills needed to work. All these changes mean a disruption of routines, less time spent with children, less availability, and less monitoring of children. Fathers also tend to spend less time—and less quality time—with their children following a divorce. According to David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, nearly 40 percent of children in America today live apart from their father, and nearly 50 percent of children are likely to spend a large portion of their childhood living away from their fathers. These sobering statistics lead him to claim:
Fatherlessness is the most harmful demographic trend of this generation. It is the leading cause of declining child well-being in our society. It is also the engine driving our most urgent social problems, from crime to adolescent pregnancy to child sexual abuse to domestic violence against women. Yet, despite its scale and social consequences, fatherlessness is a problem that is frequently ignored or denied.
Children of divorce often have mixed feelings toward their fathers, as research shows that a common source of stress is the distant relationship or infrequent contact these children have with their fathers. Later in life, many children of divorce remain angry with their fathers and blame their fathers for the divorce. Approximately one-third of the children of divorce in one study doubted that their fathers even loved them. Beyond the sadness and heartache that parental divorce brings to many children, the bounty of intangible assets that married parents provide is reduced or lost, thus making children more vulnerable during their teen years to negative peer pressure that contributes to their higher rates of drug and alcohol use, sexual promiscuity, disengagement from school, involvement with gangs, and delinquency.
The Emotional Absence of Parents
Yet the impact of divorce extends beyond the physical absence of parents. Too often parents grow emotionally distant from their children before, during, and/or following divorce, an extremely stressful process for all parties. Often preoccupied with their own pain, parents become obsessed with their feelings of anger and betrayal. They become less effective at parenting; their emotional bonds with children weaken. Because of the turmoil, parenting skills tend to decline, with parents providing less warmth and more harsh and inconsistent discipline with their children. That parents become emotionally unavailable for their children is not uncommon; they experience mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, which result in fewer expressions of love, affection, and appreciation for their children. The roles between parents and children often reverse themselves, as children’s needs are subordinated to the personal desires of parents, forcing children to “grow up” and assume adult responsibilities much sooner than they should, something commonly referred to as “parentification.” Some parents even become emotionally dependent on their children.
A particularly difficult consequence is children who feel caught in the middle of a divorce. Many a divorced mother and father struggle to cooperate with each other in the task of raising their children. As much as they may have presumed that divorce would solve relationship problems, the separated couple now finds that the needs of childrearing forces them back into a working relationship, yet conflicts remain unsolved. Exposed to the constant bickering, children feel trapped and often conclude that the divorce was their fault. Some children feel powerless and experience a sense of abandonment. Because most children want to maintain ties with both parents, when they hear one parent belittle the other—or they are asked to send messages between the parents—they can experience unhealthy stress and anxiety levels that can affect healthy socialization and development.
Children of divorce, therefore, miss out on opportunities to develop critical developmental assets such as peaceful management of conflict, negotiation, respect, and caring—patterns that are more likely to be modeled by parents in a stable marriage. Failing to acquire these positive assets hinder children’s ability to form and maintain friendships and future relationships with the opposite sex. It is plausible, therefore, that problems children of divorce face are related to parental conflict to which children were exposed before and after divorce. Consequently, the stress, the exposure to high levels of conflict, and emotionally absent parents erode developmental assets of self-esteem, positive identity, family support, and sense of purpose.
Coupled with the emotional stress of divorce, the economic and financial challenges for a split household can be devastating, even for middle-class couples. Most families experience a decline in living standards following divorce. Not only does the divorce process itself consume valuable family assets, but also income that was used to support one household is now divided to support two households. Statistics from 2003 indicate that the median annual income of married couple households with children ($67,670) was nearly three times that of single-parent households ($24,408).
Women generally suffer more financially from divorce than men. Research has found that approximately one in five women are pushed into poverty because of divorce; that nearly one out of three mothers with children at home will lose a home they jointly owned with their husband following a divorce; and that about three out of four divorced mothers do not receive the full payment of child support. Because of financial pressure, many of these mothers end up relying on welfare programs to help make ends meet.
Even for mothers that may not need public assistance, their altered economic status will affect their children, from their nutrition and health to the material resources available in the home for books, educational toys, and computers. Yet, this economic impact only partly explains why children of divorce experience a greater risk of social, health, educational, and behavioral problems. Nonetheless, all parents contemplating divorce ought to consider fully the economic downside to breaking up—which holds true across nearly all racial and ethnic groups—before depriving their children of the economic advantages of a married, two-parent family.
In addition to the financial hardship felt by adults and children, the economy takes a hit as well. Experts estimate that lost work time due to marital difficulties accounts for $6 billion in annual losses in productivity for American businesses. Even when employees do report for work, they are less likely to perform well and more likely to feel distracted due to the stresses associated with relationship problems or divorce. Yet the economic effects of divorce extend further. Divorced individuals are not only less likely, relative to their married peers, to donate financially to charities, food banks, and religious organizations, but also are more likely to be the recipients of charitable services. Divorced individuals are also more likely to file for bankruptcy than married couples. In fact, 13 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll cited divorce as one of the major reasons for bankruptcy.
Another hidden cost of divorce includes multiple transitions and relocations. Virtually every divorce results in one geographic move, while approximately 35 percent of divorces result in two geographic moves. The obvious stresses inherent in moving are only compounded with the challenge of finding affordable housing, especially for lower-income divorced mothers, who are more likely to rent than purchase a home. Often, a divorced mother moves into a less desirable neighborhood with a lower concentration of married-parent households and higher crime rates.
As these transitions are not voluntary for children, they pose greater challenges than most parents presume, as all children thrive on routines, stability, and predictability. For children, a move often means losing contact with friends and changing schools, as well as a new set of adjustments related to catching up academically and fitting in socially. Coupled with the mental and emotional stresses, residential changes brought on by parental divorce interrupt for children the acquisition of developmental assets including school involvement and academic engagement, friendship development, achievement motivation, and social competencies. No wonder these children, relative to children of married parents, not only report lower grades in school but also are less likely to graduate from high school, attend college, or attain higher status employment.
The subsequent dating and romantic relationships of divorcing parents also exerts an impact on children. Aside from the heightened risks of domestic violence to children when a boyfriend moves in with a divorced or separated mother, the introduction of romantic partners of divorced parents to children often leaves children feeling confused and betrayed. While younger children can develop an attachment to caring adults rather quickly, children tend to be leery, with good reason, of the role that a new parent-figure might play in their lives. Becoming attached to individuals who enter and exit their lives repeatedly through multiple breakups of parents is more often than not detrimental to their own emotional development and future ability to enter into the kind of relationships with the opposite sex that leads to a stable marriage. Further, repeated instances of new relationships, multiple transitions, and divorces expose children to even greater levels of conflict, diminished parenting, and financial hardship.
The Unraveling of the Generations
Among the effects of divorce, perhaps none is as far reaching as that divorce in one generation is associated with a host of problems—including marital problems and divorce—in subsequent generations. Just as the effects of welfare dependency ripple across multiple generations, the consequences of divorce extend not just to the second but also the third and fourth generations. Using a twenty-year longitudinal study, researchers explored the links between divorce and a host of outcomes for grandchildren. In their study of 691 grandparents, researchers found that children with divorced grandparents, relative to their peers without divorced grandparents, achieved lower levels of education, higher levels of marital conflict, and lower quality relationships with their parents.
These extensive and undeniable consequences of divorce provide social historians and sociologists with plenty of evidence for the argument that the breakdown of the family is the single most important factor of nearly every social problem today. While it is true that some children and adults are more resilient in the face of divorce than others, more often than not—though rarely acknowledged by those who should know better—children and adults suffer indescribable anguish as a result of marital conflict and divorce. When parents stop loving each other and dissolve a marriage, the negative ripple effects and social costs of divorce interact with a host of other risk factors that unravel threads in the tapestry of assets that are being woven into the lives of children. As an undergraduate student of mine once wrote: “My family life was very stressful. I would never want to get divorced especially if I had kids during the time because it creates so much stress on the children like it did on my sister and me.” Clearly, the most promising situation for children is to be born and raised in a home anchored upon marriage, where a mother and father are happily wed and represent the kind of role models that will motivate their children to follow their example and grow up, marry, and have a family.
The future well-being of American society depends a great deal on what a mother and father do in the home. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead writes:
It is the experience of dependable and durable family bonds that shapes a child’s sense of trust and fosters development of such traits as initiative, independence, and even risk-taking. Without these traits, it is extremely difficult to cultivate other personal characteristics such as resourcefulness, responsibility, and resilience, which are essential in a pluralistic society and a demanding global economy.
Perhaps only as they realize that their life choices of marrying and divorcing are not so much about them, but about something larger and more important than their own personal feelings, might American adults conclude that the tragic experiment of no-fault divorce has not been good for children, for parents, for the extended family, for the community, for the economy, and for the nation.
Dr. Schramm is assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where he also serves as a state extension specialist and directs the Missouri Healthy Marriage Initiative.