WASHINGTON, June 6, 2000-From gun control to
airbag regulations, Americans will do almost anything if it's "for
the children." Yet they won't stop divorcing at a rate of more than
50 percent, despite an overwhelming amount of social science
research that shows that children of divorced parents pay a high
price physically, mentally and emotionally.
Indeed, the effects spill over into every aspect of society as
these children become adults, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.
Children of divorced parents are far more likely than children of
stable, two-parent families to live in poverty, have health
problems, and become victims of abuse and neglect. They also have
higher dropout rates, initiate sexual activity at an earlier age,
commit more crimes, and have higher rates of drug and alcohol
More than 1 million U.S. children are affected by divorce each
year, up from fewer than half a million in 1960, write Patrick
Fagan, Heritage's William H. G. Fitzgerald senior fellow in family
and cultural issues, and Robert Rector, Heritage's senior research
fellow in domestic policy studies. Drawing on hundreds of articles
and studies appearing in leading social science and scientific
journals over the last 15 years, Fagan and Rector identify what
they call "the downward spiral of family breakdown."
Fagan, a former family therapist, served as Deputy Assistant
Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bush. Rector
specializes in welfare and family issues and is widely considered
the architect of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that has
sharply reduced welfare dependency in many states.
Their new research reviews a number of social health indices.
Take the link between a community's crime rate and family
structure. Robert Sampson, a professor of sociology at the
University of Chicago, found that the divorce rate predicted the
rate of robbery in any given area, regardless of economic or racial
composition. In his study of 171 cities with populations above
100,000, Sampson showed that the lower a city's rate of divorce,
the lower its levels of crime.
Social science literature also shows a clear connection between
divorce and child poverty, the Heritage analysts say. Mary
Corcoran, a professor of political science at the University of
Michigan, did a study showing that family income drops
significantly after a divorce, with an average decline of between
28 percent and 42 percent. For families that were not poor before a
divorce, the income plunge can hit 50 percent. "The breakup of
families leaves one parent trying to do the work of two people-and
one person cannot support a family as well as two can," Fagan and
Another study tracked 6,400 boys over 20 years and found that
those without fathers in the home are two to three times more
likely to commit crimes that result in jail time, according to
Fagan and Rector. Not that girls are immune: Those from intact
families are far less likely to skip school or abuse drugs and
alcohol. In Wisconsin, juvenile incarceration rates for children of
divorced parents are 12 times higher than for children in intact,
two-parent families, the Heritage analysts found.
They also found a strong correlation between family structure
and rates of sexual and physical abuse of children. The rate of
sexual abuse of girls by their stepfathers is at least six to seven
times higher-and may be as much as 40 times greater-than similar
abuse of girls by their biological fathers, they say. Similarly, a
study by Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, professors of psychology at
McMasters University in Canada, shows that children 2 years of age
and younger are 70 to 100 times more likely to be killed by a
stepparent than by a biological parent.
Researchers have documented the effect of divorce on the
physical health of children as well. One lengthy study followed
more than 1,500 middle-class children over their life spans and
found a significantly higher mortality rate for children whose
parents had divorced, compared with children from intact families.
Another study, published in the American Journal of Public
Health, showed these mortality rates increase especially when
the divorce occurs before the child's fourth birthday.
The effect of divorce on education is also pronounced, Fagan and
Rector say. High school dropout rates are much higher among
children of divorced parents than among children of always-married
parents, and children from divorced families have a college
attendance rate about 60 percent lower than children from intact
families. By completing more years of education, children from
always-married parents typically wind up with higher incomes, as
Protecting tomorrow's children from these ill effects requires
nothing less than a wholesale change in America's attitudes toward
divorce, the analysts conclude. Congress, working in conjunction
with state governments, should set a goal of reducing divorce among
families with children by one-third over the next decade and use
surplus welfare money to finance programs that teach marriage
skills and discourage divorce and illegitimacy.
State governments can also bring divorce rates down by promoting
"community marriage" policies (which use mentoring programs to
repair troubled marriages) and ending "no-fault" divorce for
parents with children under age 18, they say.