Divorce: Ignoring the cost

COMMENTARY Marriage and Family

Divorce: Ignoring the cost

Aug 28, 2000 2 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.


Edwin J. Feulner is the founder and former president of The Heritage Foundation.

What would you say if I told you there's a sure-fire way to reduce child poverty, make kids more likely to stay in school and less likely to experiment with sex, and cause crime rates to drop even further?

Before you assume you've tuned into some late-night "infomercial" or-worse-a political convention, let me quickly unveil this seemingly magic cure-all: marriage. A growing body of social science research shows that marriage is the best antidote to a host of societal ills and that divorce is more harmful to children than most people think.

Which makes the number of U.S. children affected by divorce-more than 1 million a year, up from fewer than 500,000 in 1960-all the more worrisome.

Heritage Foundation researchers Patrick Fagan and Robert Rector recently reviewed hundreds of articles and studies from leading social science journals to chart what they call "the downward spiral of family breakdown." Their report is a sobering read.

Consider the link between crime rates and family structure. You can actually use the divorce rate in a given area to predict its level of crime, according to University of Chicago sociology professor Robert Sampson, who studied 171 U.S. cities with populations above 100,000 and found that the lower a city's divorce rate, the lower its crime rate.

Another study tracked 6,400 boys over 20 years and found those who grew up without fathers in the home were two to three times more likely to commit crimes. In Wisconsin (the only state to release government data on the link between divorce and crime), children of divorced parents are 12 times more likely to serve time in jail than are children from intact, two-parent families.

Then there's the connection between divorce and poverty. According to Mary Corcoran, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, household income for children living with two parents averaged $43,600. It dropped to $25,300 following a divorce.

Studies also show divorce affects education. High school dropout rates are much higher among children of divorced parents than among children of always-married parents, and the children of divorce are 60 percent less likely to attend college than children from always-married parents. Girls from intact families are also far less likely to skip school.

The effect of divorce on sexual behavior is noteworthy, too. U.S. and British studies show that daughters of divorced parents are more likely to engage in pre-marital sex. African-American girls are 42 percent less likely to have sex before age 18 if they live at home with their biological fathers. But a stepfather can have the opposite effect, with one study of Hispanic-American girls finding this makes them 72 percent more likely to have sex before 18.

The list of harmful effects goes on. But the question is, can anything be done to reverse the trend? Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, whose state has the second-highest divorce rate in the country, believes it must-and he has vowed to cut his state's rate by one-third over 10 years.

But Keating is not pushing big-government solutions. Instead, he's working with his state's private sector and religious communities to encourage marriage preparation and discourage divorce. Perhaps most importantly, Keating is using his bully pulpit to counter the widespread assumption that divorce is just another social arrangement.

No one's saying it should be impossible to get out of a marriage. But considering its importance to the health of our society, shouldn't it be just a little bit harder?

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service.