Reforms aimed at making it harder for couples to obtain divorces in the US are being touted as part of the solution to runaway government spending.
According to figures from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, a new single-parent family with children, created as a result of divorce, can cost the government $20,000 to $30,000 a year.
Given that more than four in ten of every US marriage ends in divorce, family breakup costs the US taxpayer $112 billion a year total in divorce-related social-service subsidies and lost revenue.
Chris Gersten, founder and chairman of the nonpartisan Coalition for Divorce Reform told The Washington Times that the US is “absolutely” ready for divorce reform.
His group is promoting reforms that aim at cutting divorce rates by a third in five years. If the measures are passed, he says, “the savings to taxpayers will be pretty dramatic”.
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, 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.
Polling data has consistently shown that Americans support more restrictive divorce laws.
For more than 30 years, the General Social Survey, one of America's most authoritative regular surveys of social attitudes, has asked Americans if divorce should be “easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?”
The most popular answer is always “more difficult.”
Despite this, however, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) showed that there were 1,087,920 divorces and a divorce rate of 8.2 per 1,000 population in 2008. This is higher than other federal figures because ACS has data from all states.
Serious divorce reform was last tried 14 years ago when Louisiana passed a “covenant-marriage” law. “Covenant couples” agree to premarital education and marriage counseling. However, only three states have adopted a covenant-marriage law, and only a tiny number of couples opt in.
Meanwhile, last year, New York lawmakers passed a law allowing no-fault divorce. In the first seven months after the law went into effect, divorces rose 12 percent.
Divorce lawyers have come out against reforms making divorce tougher for couples. Pamela J. Waggoner, chair of the family law section of the Minnesota State Bar Association says: “I don’t understand the necessity,” she said, of putting a reconciliation component into divorce-related or parenting programs.
Figures show that family breakdown leads to higher levels of child poverty.
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.
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.
Reformers have achieved some progress. In the state of New Mexico, state Sen. Mark Boitano introduced the Parental Divorce Reduction Act this year.
Activists expect lawmakers in 12 more states to do so in 2012.
The legislation 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.