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Backgrounder #1373 on Family and Marriage

June 5, 2000

The Effects of Divorce on America

By and

Each year, over 1 million American children suffer the divorce of their parents; moreover, half of the children born this year to parents who are married will see their parents divorce before they turn 18. Mounting evidence in social science journals demonstrates that the devastating physical, emotional, and financial effects that divorce is having on these children will last well into adulthood and affect future generations. Among these broad and damaging effects are the following:

  • Children whose parents have divorced are increasingly the victims of abuse. They exhibit more health, behavioral, and emotional problems, are involved more frequently in and drug abuse, and have higher rates of suicide.

  • Children of divorced parents perform more poorly in reading, spelling, and math. They also are more likely to repeat a grade and to have higher drop-out rates and lower rates of college graduation.

  • Families with children that were not poor before the divorce see their income drop as much as 50 percent. Almost 50 percent of the parents with children that are going through a divorce move into poverty after the divorce.

  • Religious worship, which has been linked to better health, longer marriages, and better Family life, drops after the parents divorce.

The divorce of parents, even if it is amicable, tears apart the fundamental unit of American society. Today, according to the Federal Reserve Board's 1995 Survey of Consumer Finance, only 42 percent of children aged 14 to 18 live in a "first marriage" family--an intact two-parent married family. It should be no surprise to find that divorce is having such profound effects on society.

Restoring the importance of marriage to society and the welfare of children will require politicians and civic leaders to make this one of their most important tasks. It also will require a modest commitment of resources to pro-marriage programs. Fiscal conservatives should realize that federal and state governments spend $150 billion per year to subsidize and sustain single-parent families. By contrast, only $150 million is spent to strengthen marriage. Thus, for every $1,000 spent to deal with the effects of Family disintegration, only $1 is spent to prevent that disintegration. Refocusing funds to preserve marriage by reducing divorce and illegitimacy not only will be good for children and society, but in the long run will save money.

Among its efforts, the federal government should:

  • Establish, by resolution, a national goal of reducing divorce among families with children by one-third over the next decade.

  • Establish pro-marriage demonstration programs by diverting sufficient funds from existing federal social programs into programs that provide training in marriage skills.

  • Mandate that surplus welfare funds be used to strengthen marriages and slow the increase in Family disintegration.

  • Rebuild the federal-state system for gathering statistics on marriage and divorce, which ended in 1993. Without such data, the nation cannot assess the true impact of divorce on the Family, the schools, the community, and the taxpayer.

  • Create a public health campaign to inform Americans of the risks associated with divorce and of the long-term benefits of marriage.

  • Give a one-time tax credit to always-married couples when their youngest children reach 18. This small reward for committing one's marriage to nurturing the next generation into adulthood would help to offset the current marriage penalty in the tax code.

State laws govern marriage. Among their efforts, the states should:

  • Establish a goal to reduce the divorce rate among parents with children by one-third over the next decade and establish pro-marriage education and mentoring programs to teach couples how to develop skills to handle conflict and enhance the marital relationship.

  • Require married couples with minor children to complete divorce education and a mediated co-partnering plan before filing for divorce.

  • Promote community-wide marriage programs for couples planning to get married and marriage-mentoring programs for couples in troubled marriages.

  • End "no-fault" divorce for parents with children under age 18, requiring them to prove that grave harm will be visited upon the children by having the marriage continue.

  • Make the Covenant marriage option available to engaged couples as a way to bind them to a marriage contract that lengthens the process for obtaining of a divorce by two years.

If the Family is the building block of society, then marriage is the foundation of the family. However, this foundation is growing weaker, with fewer adults entering into marriage, more adults leaving it in divorce, and more and more adults eschewing it altogether for single parenthood or cohabitation.

American society, through its institutions, must teach core principles: that marriage is the best environment in which to raise healthy, happy children who can achieve their potential and that the Family is the most important institution for social well-being. To set about the task of rebuilding a culture of Family based on marriage and providing it with all the protections and supports necessary to make intact marriages commonplace, federal, state, and local officials must have the will to act.

Patrick F. Fagan is William H. G. FitzGerald Senior Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues and Robert E. Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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