Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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Wednesday, July 26, 2000
The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Commentary:

We should work to save kids from divorce

Katherine Kersten

What is the No. 1 public health threat to American children? Could it be smoking? We've gone to court to save kids from Joe Camel. How about child abuse? We've mounted nationwide campaigns against it. Maybe drugs? Many public elementary schools begin sending antidrug messages in the early grades.

But the greatest health threat to American children is none of these. It is something we, as parents, bring on our children ourselves: divorce.

We hesitate to talk much about the consequences of divorce for kids. In part, that's because we know there are sometimes good reasons for couples to separate. But in part, it's because we live in a divorce culture, where "no fault" is the norm, and adults are used to hearing that it's OK to give their own needs and preferences priority over their children's well-being.

Each year, more than 1 million American children suffer the divorce of their parents. Half of the children born to married parents this year will see their parents divorce before their 18th birthday. This represents a sea change: In 1925, there were 15 divorces per 100 marriages; today, it's 51 per 100 marriages.

The effects of this tidal wave of divorce are devastating, for our children and for our nation's future. In a recent study -- "The Effects of Divorce on America" -- Patrick Fagan and Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation document the physical, emotional, academic, financial and social costs of the divorce epidemic. They point out, moreover, that its effects are intergenerational, ranging from the lower earnings that children of divorce can expect as adults to the escalating cycle of family disintegration that they are likely to perpetuate.

Not all children are devastated by their parents' divorce. Nevertheless, children of divorce are at far greater risk for a host of ills than their peers from intact families. For example, they are much more likely to participate in crime, and to abuse drugs and alcohol. They are also more likely to be abused by adults; to experience depression or hyperactivity, and to behave aggressively or impulsively. According to Fagan and Rector, the dramatic rise in adolescent suicide of the past 30 years appears to be strongly linked to the rise in the divorce rate.

On the sexual front, the rate of adolescent virginity is highly correlated with the presence or absence of married parents. Children of divorce tend to have intercourse earlier, to have more sexual partners and sexually transmitted diseases, and a greater number of out-of-wedlock births.

On the academic front, children of divorced parents tend to perform more poorly in math and spelling than their peers from intact families. Research suggests that, on average, they lag in reading by half a year by age 13. Moreover, these children have significantly higher high-school dropout rates and lower rates of college graduation, most likely exacerbated by frequent moves between domiciles, increased anxiety and depression and financial strain.

Not surprisingly, divorce frequently impedes a child's ability to sustain family life as an adult. It tends to weaken parent-child relations; diminish trust of others; promote destructive ways of handling conflict; change children's expectations of marriage, and lead to higher rates of cohabitation and divorce as children reach adulthood. Those of us in the rapidly aging baby-boom generation may be dismayed to learn that children of divorce are less likely than their peers from intact families to believe that they should support their parents in old age.

According to Fagan and Rector, divorce has a greater effect on the household income of a custodial parent than the Great Depression had on the American economy. Almost half of households with children move into poverty following divorce. Likewise, divorce seriously diminishes the potential of every member of the household to accumulate wealth. The decline in income may be intergenerational, since children whose parents divorce are likely to earn less as adults than their peers.

What can we do to protect our children from the devastating consequences of divorce? Obviously, real change will depend on the demise of the divorce culture, which in turn depends on a change in the hearts and minds of American adults. But public policy reforms are also important. Divorce represents such a threat to children's well-being, and the future strength of the nation, that marriage preservation should be at the top of America's policy agenda.

At the federal level, Fagan and Rector call for a variety of changes -- some substantial, some symbolic. These include:

* Pro-marriage demonstration programs to provide training in marriage skills, run by pro-marriage community groups, not indifferent government bureaucracies.

* A one-time tax credit to always-married couples when their youngest child reaches 18.

* A congressional resolution setting a goal, over the next decade, of a one-third reduction in divorce among families with children.

* Because marriage is regulated by state law, the most significant reforms must come at the state level. Fagan and Rector suggest an end to no-fault divorce for parents with children under 18. In order to win court approval to divorce, parents would have to prove that continuing the marriage would inflict grave harm on their children. Fagan and Rector also endorse the option of covenant marriage, which would lengthen the divorce process, as well as a new marital option, in which couples could choose to commit themselves to a marriage that would last until death. Under this option, legal separation would be possible, but not divorce.

We Americans are making concerted efforts to protect our children from smoking, drugs and child abuse. Yet we're doing next to nothing to blunt the tragedy of divorce, which contributes to health threats like these, and mars the next generation in a host of additional ways. It's time to acknowledge as a nation that marriage is the best environment in which to raise healthy, happy and productive children, and commit ourselves to ensuring that more young people grow to adulthood with its benefits.

**************

-- Katherine Kersten is a director of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

The American Experiment is a nonpartisan, tax-exempt public policy and educational institution focused on problems facing Minnesota and the nation.

The American Experiment was founded by Mitch Pearlstein co-author with Wade Horn and David Blankenhorn of "The Fatherhood Movement: A call to action"

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