June 6, 2000

June 6, 2000 | News Releases on Family and Marriage

New Study Details Harmful Effects Of Divorce On American Society

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 addiction.

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 Rector write.

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 well.

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.

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