Should States Restrict Divorce for Spouses with Kids?

Should states restrict divorce?  Currently all 50 states have some form of no-fault divorce, but many people point to that as perhaps the single greatest cause of family breakdown over the past 40 years.  Moreover, in this time of ever-tighter state and federal budgets, restricting divorce and the multitude of state employees that go along with it would be a huge cost saver.

Those are some of the points raised in this article (Washington Times, 8/15/11).

The average split costs a couple $2,500. A new single-parent family with children can cost the government $20,000 to $30,000 a year. That”s $33 billion to $112 billion a year total in divorce-related social-service subsidies and lost revenue.

Just where those numbers come from is anyone’s guess.  Mine is that they wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny, so take them with a grain of salt.

Whatever the case, organizations promoting divorce reform have seized on the idea of tight budgets to promote their ideas.

The country is “absolutely’ ready for divorce reform, said Chris Gersten, founder and chairman of the nonpartisan Coalition for Divorce Reform.

If states pass the coalition”s legislative model that aims at cutting divorce rates by a third in five years, “the savings to taxpayers will be pretty dramatic,’ he said.

Even a “modest reduction’ in the U.S. divorce rate likely would benefit 400,000 children and save taxpayers significant sums, wrote retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears and University of Minnesota professor William J. Doherty, proponents of a new “Second Chances’ divorce reform.

“We have to rethink this ‘easy-to-divorce” strategy,’ added Michael McManus, author and founder of Marriage Savers, which promotes a community marriage strategy that has been shown to reduce divorce rates by an average of 17.5 percent.

Americans have consistently supported more restrictive divorce laws. For more than 30 years, the General Social Survey asked Americans if divorce should be “easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?’ The most popular answer is always “more difficult.’

That may be because it can’t get much easier, but the point is clear – Americans aren’t comfortable with the family breakdown or the ease with which it’s accomplished.

And that means they’re probably smarter than the elites who told us in the 1960s that children would be better off if their parents could split easily.  The theory then was that children would benefit from lower levels of conflict between their parents if the adults could go their separate ways.  Now we know better.  Now we know that divorce itself is harmful to children.

Children of divorce are often stunted economically and can”t seem to work their way into higher-income levels, a 2010 study from Pew Charitable Trusts says.

If the U.S. “enjoyed the same level of family stability today as it did in 1960,’ there would be 750,000 fewer children repeating grades, 1.2 million fewer school suspensions, about 500,000 fewer acts of teenage delinquency, about 600,000 few children receiving therapy and 70,000 fewer suicides every year, writes W. Bradford Wilcox in a 2009 paper, referring to research by Pennsylvania State University professors Paul Amato and Alan Booth.

Children of divorce have shorter life spans – by an average of five years – compared to children whose parents didn”t divorce, according to a new study by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin.

That longevity data is “the most devastating analysis that we”ve seen … of the impact of divorce on children. They don”t ‘get over it,” ‘ said Mr. Gersten, who was a Department of Health and Human Services official in the George W. Bush administration.

(Brad Wilcox is a highly respected sociologist, and I’m sure he didn’t say that divorce reform could save 70,000 suicides a year.  Since about 32,000 people a year commit suicide, that would be impossible.  My guess is it’s a typo and that Wilcox actually said 7,000.)

So groups pushing for divorce reform are asking state legislatures to take action.

Mr. Gersten”s coalition already has seen a victory: New Mexico state Sen. Mark Boitano introduced the Parental Divorce Reduction Act in this year”s session, and Mr. Gersten expects lawmakers in a dozen states to do so in 2012.

The act requires parents of minor children who are contemplating divorce to first attend six hours of “divorce-reduction’ education. They would then enter an eight-month “reflection’ period with access to marriage-strengthening materials and workshops. After that, they can go ahead with a divorce, “and we let the lawyers take over,’ said Mr. Gersten, who added that couples in certain circumstances, such as domestic violence, would be exempted from the program.

Let’s be clear about the real problem with divorce.  If two adults are childless, no one but them should care whether they’re married or not.  Divorce may hurt them individually, but no one else. 

Who’s hurt in a divorce is the child.  Essentially all of the bad data on divorce involves its effects on children.  So any attempt at divorce reform should be aimed solely at couples with children, as the Coalition for Divorce Reform’s proposal is.

I’m all for the institution of marriage.  There’s little doubt that children raised in a marital household with two biological parents tend to do better than any of their peers raised in other situations.  But we’ve lived for almost 40 years with no-fault divorce and my guess is that people aren’t clamoring to be less free than they are now.  Oh, I know people are dissatisfied with the state of marital breakdown, but that doesn’t mean they want their freedom to divorce impaired.

And it’s anything but certain that more restrictive laws will actually cut the divorce rate.  Gersten’s group’s model legislation calls for education and a period of “reflection.”  I don’t see that stopping many divorces, although I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

More draconian penalties would, I suspect, simply reduce the marriage rate rather than the divorce rate.  To avoid the penalties for divorce people would simply cohabitate, a “cure” that’s probably worse than the disease.

We’ll see how this plays out.  Certainly our willingness to form and dissolve partnerships irrespective of the injury done to children needs to change and indeed, many people have read the writing on the wall and are resisting divorce.  Their stories are mostly anecdotal, but the divorce rate, at least among the better educated, is falling, not rising.

As long as we have no-fault divorce, what’s needed to soften the blow for children is the assurance that they won’t lose one of their parents in the process.  One of the hardest and most injurious aspects of divorce for children is the loss of the non-custodial parent.  Shared parenting legislation that’s actually enforced by courts would go a long way toward salving children’s wounds when their parents split up.

Restricting divorce is well-intentioned, but probably misguided.  We’ll see how it goes.  In the next few years, we’ll see how open legislatures are to the concept and, more importantly, how well it works at reducing divorce.  If it does, I’ll be the first to stand up and cheer.

In the meantime, I’ll promote shared parenting that’ll continue to be necessary regardless of how many divorces there are.

Thanks to Don and Ned for the heads-up.

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