The Impact of Marriage and Divorce on Children

Testimony Marriage and Family

The Impact of Marriage and Divorce on Children

May 13, 2004 7 min read
Patrick Fagan
Former William H.G. Fitzgerald fellow
Former William H.G. Fitzgerald fellow in family and cultural issues at The Heritage Foundation.

Testimony Before the Senate of the United States, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Subcommittee on Science, Technology, And Space regarding the Social Scientific Data on the Impact of Marriage and Divorce on Children.

Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on the challenge that family life in America presents to the children and the leaders of our nation.

The family is the building block of our society. It is the place where everyone begins life and to which they always belong. The more that members of a family belong to each other, the more each individual and each family thrive. When rejection occurs in the family, especially between the parents when they separate or divorce, or even when they never come together, the entire family and especially the children, suffers.

The accompanying extended remarks in the form of a booklet called "The Map of the American Family" illustrate in charts the trends and the dynamics of belonging and rejection in the United States over the last fifty years. These charts are mainly from federal surveys and give a snapshot of what is occurring within America's families. (British data are used when there is no corresponding U.S. federal survey….a situation that should be remedied.)

The effects of belonging, rejection, and indifference are illustrated in these graphs. National survey data repeatedly and consistently show that the highest levels of positive outcomes are in those families where the parents have always belonged to each other and to their children: the intact married family. These families (adults and children) are less likely to live in poverty, less likely to be dependent on welfare, more likely to be happy, and to have a host of other positive outcomes. Further, the children in these families are more likely to exhibit positive outcomes (such as higher grade point average) and less likely to exhibit negative ones (such as depression).

Though these charts are correlational -- deliberately so, to give the best picture or snapshot of what is happening with America's children -- the regression analysis and causative exploration by the nation's top family sociologists repeatedly find that the intact married family is the best place in which children thrive.

When parents reject each other by divorce or an out of wedlock birth that eventually ends in totally separate lives for the father and mother, the strengths of their children are not as developed as they could be, and more weaknesses occur in major outcomes such as deprivations, addictions, abuse and failure.

When fathers and mothers belong to each other in marriage their children thrive. When they are indifferent or walk away from each or reject each other, their children do not thrive as much, and many wilt a lot.

The chart below gives a picture of how many children have been affected by changes in family structure over the past fifty years, changes in the levels of belongingness and the levels of rejection during these five decades.


This chart shows that in 1950 for every hundred children born, that year, 12 entered a broken family -- four were born out of wedlock and eight suffered the divorce of their parents. By the year 2000 that number had risen five fold and for every 100 children born 60 entered a broken family: 33 born out of wedlock and 27 suffering the divorce of their parents.

We must conclude that over the last fifty years America has changed from being preponderantly "a culture of belonging" to now being "a culture of rejection".

Because of this level of the rejection by fathers and mothers of each other this growing cohort of children has not nor will not attain the fullness of its capacities. Neither can the nation attain the fullness of its capacity to fulfill its destiny and role.

The children of parents who reject each other suffer: in deep emotional pain, ill health, depression, anxiety, even shortened life span; more drop out of school, less go to college, they earn less income, they develop more addictions to drugs and alcohol, and they engage in increased violence or suffer it within their homes.

Society also suffers with more gangs, more assaults, more violence against women and children, more sexual abuse of women and children, and much bigger bills for jails, increased need for health care, supplemental education, addiction programs, foster care, homelessness programs and on and on. The expansion of all these social program budgets is directly linked to the breakdown in marriage.

There is not a single area of governmental concern, not a single budget of a major social policy area that does not grow in size when marriages fail, or when parents reject each other. Picking up the pieces becomes not just the work of the fragmented family itself but of all taxpayers and the whole of society. The breakdown has now reached such a level as to be massively expensive. With these results we can say this cultural change -- America's latest experiment with freedom -- has been a big failure.

Though it may seem far removed from the point of this hearing, this cultural phenomenon is now a foreign policy issue. To be the leader of the free world we need a culture that we are proud of, a culture that is a source of domestic strength and happiness.

How do we reverse this situation?

As a nation we need to set about restoring the conditions that will grow again a culture of belonging, with all the ingredients that go into such a culture: courtship, marriage, worship and communities of families that form neighborhoods that are nice places to come home to: neighborhoods in which romance, courtship and marriage are normal and frequent. Behind this simple goal -- some might, without grasping its import, say simplistic goal -- lies a huge amount of work especially for everyone, including this body.

The Senate, which has played such a critical role so often in shaping the ideas that guide and correct the unfolding American experiment in freedom, and which has helped shape the ideals of this nation so often, is now called again to play again its foremost role in bringing this about the changes needed: debate.

We are a political nation, founded on a political ideas and ideals that animate our constitution and our national history. And the Senate is the institution designed most to be that place where America debates the next form of its ongoing experiment with freedom: more than the House, more than the Supreme Court, more even than the Presidency. This is the preeminent institution of debate in this country -- so at least was the intention of the Founders, and so still is the need of the people.

George Washington in his Farewell Speech to the Nation drew attention to the need for the American people to be a people of worship if this experiment in freedom is to work. The latest data show us that these families-those that worship most, are those that most belong to each other, that give us the most of what we want in all our social policies, and produce the least of what we try to prevent in all our social programs….but that is a topic for another hearing, one well worth having.

When mothers and fathers belong to each other and strive to belong to God in worship the greatest strengths emerge and the least problems are present. For instance on something the whole country and this Senate constantly talk, and worry about, and spend a lot of money on -- education attainment and outcomes -- children from the intact family that worships God most frequently has the highest Grade Point Average, while children from the fragmented family that worships least or not at all, as a group, has the lowest Grade Point Average, as the attached chart illustrates from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, our biggest and most comprehensive survey ever of adolescent outcomes. A host of other outcomes illustrate the same basic point.


There is much in the scientific literature that points towards religious practice as a great preserver and fosterer of marriage and family strengths.

Thus we increasingly have data pointing towards two fundamental strengths for this nation: love between fathers and mothers in marriage, and regular worship of God. Significantly both are premised on America's most fundamental premise, freedom: both marriage and worship can only truly happen with the totally free undertaking of the people involved. There is absolutely no room for any form of coercion in these great enterprises…hence the importance of the role of debate and persuasion, especially debate in the Senate.

In this time of an obvious failure of one phase of America's experiment with freedom, the challenge before you, the leaders of this nation, is how to lead America back to having a culture of belonging rather than being a culture of rejection; to being a country where people and families belong to each other and especially fathers belong first to the mothers of their children and mothers belong first to the fathers. Parents belonging to each other are what children need more than anything else this nation can give them.

The first step on how to get there is being taken by discussions such as this. This and the debate that will follow among your colleagues is a major service to the whole nation.

I sincerely thank Senator Brownback and Senator McCain for inviting me to testify before this committee. It is a great honor for me. I hope my testimony has been helpful to you.



The Heritage Foundation is a public policy, research, and educational organization recognized as exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It is privately supported and receives no funds from any government at any level, nor does it perform any government or other contract work.

The Heritage Foundation is the most broadly supported think tank in the United States. During 2013, it had nearly 600,000 individual, foundation, and corporate supporters representing every state in the U.S. Its 2013 income came from the following sources:

Individuals 80%

Foundations 17%

Corporations 3%

The top five corporate givers provided The Heritage Foundation with 2% of its 2013 income. The Heritage Foundation’s books are audited annually by the national accounting firm of McGladrey, LLP.

Members of The Heritage Foundation staff testify as individuals discussing their own independent research. The views expressed are their own and do not reflect an institutional position for The Heritage Foundation or its board of trustees.


Patrick Fagan

Former William H.G. Fitzgerald fellow