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April 16, 2008
Column #1,390
Advance for April 19, 2008
Taxpayer Cost of Divorce & Unwed Births: $112 billion
by Mike McManus

On April 15, tax day, the Institute for American Values and three pro-family groups held a press conference to deliver a sobering analysis that "at least $112 billion" of public costs stem from "family fragmentation" caused by divorce and unwed births.

"This study documents for the first time that divorce and unwed childbearing - besides being bad for children - are costing taxpayers a ton of money," said David Blankenhorn, Institute president.

He noted that until now, marriage advocates based their support for reducing divorce and out-of-wedlock births on two grounds:

1.  Due to their religious faith, millions support marriage and oppose divorce and unwed child bearing.

2.  Social costs and human suffering as a result of broken homes is thoroughly documented.  For example, children of single parent families are three times as likely to be expelled from school or become pregnant as teens as those from intact homes and are five times as apt to live in poverty. .
"However, marriage advocates have been tongue-tied on the economic dimension of family fragmentation because we have not had good evidence, no rigorous study producing hard data until today," Blankenhorn asserted. "We had suspicions that family breakdown was costing taxpayers a lot of money, but we did not have rigorous studies that gave us compelling empirical evidence."

"Until today" when "The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing" study was released. "Now I believe you have a new tool in your tool kit to make economic arguments. Policymakers, who are the custodians of our tax dollars, like having things expressed in dollars of public costs. This is what they are responsive to."

What are those costs?  For, example, less than one percent of married mothers are in poverty, but divorce pushes 24 percent of them into poverty.  Many subsequently go on welfare, start using food stamps, housing and day care subsidies plus Medicaid, school lunch and breakfast programs and Head Start.

Add to those numbers the fact that 38 percent of children are born to unwed mothers, who get the same taxpayer provided assistance.

As children of broken families become teenagers, they are more than twice as likely to commit a crime as those from intact homes. Single adult males are similarly more likely to be criminals, generating billions of costs for courts, police and prisons.

What if these single parents were married?  Millions would be lifted out of poverty and thus would need fewer taxpayer subsidies.  Different experts estimate that 65 to 80 percent of single mothers would move into the middle class.  To be conservative, the report assumed only 60 percent of females would escape poverty.

The report estimates that the federal, state and local cost of these programs is $90 billion. In addition, the study reports that poverty decreases income by $170 billion a year.  The result is that $22 billion less taxes are paid.  Thus, the study estimates a total cost to taxpayers of family fragmentation at $112 billion per year.

If anything, these estimates are low.  They do not count the $40 billion Earned Income Tax Credit, nine-tenths of which goes to single parents. Nor the $13 billion of federal education subsidies for poor kids  And only 8.6 percent of criminal justice costs are counted when 56 percent of those in prisons came from single parent homes.

Yet $112 billion is huge.  Randy Hicks, president of the Georgia Family Council noted the U.S. has spent $500 billion on the Iraq War over the last five years - which is less than the $560 billion taxpayers spent on consequences of divorce and unwed births.

To put it differently, the study estimated that even a 1% decline in the divorce rate, for example, would save taxpayers $1.1 billion.  Is that possible?

The clergy of 114 cities adopted reforms to strengthen marriage that has reduced divorce rates by an average of 17.5 percent in 114 cities, according to an independent study. Austin, Kansas City and five other cities slashed divorce rates in half. (Disclosure: I run Marriage Savers which helped them.)

To date, only seven states are funding programs to strengthen marriage and the spending is tiny. Texas set aside 1 percent of welfare spending, $15 million over two years, to fund programs to reduce divorce rates.

However, this study provides evidence that there could be no better public investment for all states than programs aimed at strengthening marriage. Only 68 percent of children live with both parents today but as recently as 1970, 85 percent were in intact homes.

Now marriage advocates have new ammunition for the fight.

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