The high cost of divorce

Carolyn Moynihan
23 Aug 2011
Reproduced with Permission

With cohabitation replacing marriage, divorce is receding as a cause of family breakdown, but it remains a serious problem. An article in the Washington Times cites US Census Bureau survey figures indicating that there were well over a million divorces in American in 2008 (1,087,920) giving a divorce rate of 8.2 per 1000 population.

The material cost is huge.

The average split costs a couple $2,500. A new single-parent family with children can cost the government $20,000 to $30,000 a year. That's $33 billion to $112 billion a year total in divorce-related social-service subsidies and lost revenue.

And let's not forget that new single parent families include those resulting from cohabiting splits.

The children stand to bear the greatest cost:

Children of divorce are often stunted economically and can't seem to work their way into higher-income levels, a 2010 study from Pew Charitable Trusts says.

If the U.S. "enjoyed the same level of family stability today as it did in 1960," there would be 750,000 fewer children repeating grades, 1.2 million fewer school suspensions, about 500,000 fewer acts of teenage delinquency, about 600,000 few children receiving therapy and 70,000 fewer suicides every year, writes W. Bradford Wilcox in a 2009 paper, referring to research by Pennsylvania State University professors Paul Amato and Alan Booth.

It can even shorten their lives:

Children of divorce have shorter life spans - by an average of five years - compared to children whose parents didn't divorce, according to a new study by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin.

That longevity data is "the most devastating analysis that we've seen … of the impact of divorce on children. They don't 'get over it,'" said Mr. Gersten, who was a Department of Health and Human Services official in the George W. Bush administration.

And yet the annual General Social Survey shows that a majority of Americans think it should be more difficult to get a divorce.

It's a good thing, then, that some people are persevering in their efforts to save marriages. The Coalition for Divorce Reform has model legislation that they say could cut divorce by a third in five years. Marriage Savers offers a community marriage strategy that has reduced divorce rates by an average of 17.5 per cent where it has been used. And three states have introduced covenant-marriage laws -- though very few couples make us of them. New Mexico is due to debate a Parental Divorce Reduction Act and others have indicated they will follow.

In a policy brief published this month by the Brookings Institute, sociologists W Bradford Wilcox and Andrew J Cherlin back such efforts:

Among the options that states should experiment with are the following: mandatory one-year waiting periods for couples with children, divorce education that alerts couples with children to the risks that divorce poses to their children, optional programs for couples who express an interest in reconciliation, and legal reforms that would allow judges to factor in breaches of the marital contract in making determinations about child custody and property division.

They add:

None of these reforms would eliminate divorce as an option for troubled couples or spouses, nor should they. Instead, they would slow down the process of dissolution, provide an off-ramp for couples interested in reconciling, and invest the marriage contract with more weight than it currently enjoys.

Divorce is not a private issue -- it affects everyone, not least by undermining the public's confidence in marriage.