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June 24, 2000
Column #982

(First of a series of three columns on marriage)


     A million children a year see their parents divorce, the impact of which is calamitous. A new report by the Heritage Foundation ''demonstrates that the devastating physical, emotional and financial effects on these children will last well into adulthood and affect future generations.''  Only 42 percent of teens aged 14-18 live in a ''first family,'' an intact, two-parent married family.

     Children of divorce experience ''anger, fear, sadness, worry, rejection, conflicting loyalties, lowered self-confidence, heightened anxiety, loneliness, more depressed moods, more suicidal thoughts,'' says the Heritage report, ''The Effects of Divorce on America'' by Patrick Fagan and Robert Rector. Compared to kids in intact homes children of divorce face startling risks.They are:

  • 12 times more liable to be incarcerated as juveniles

  • 14 times more prone to be physically abused by a single mother, and 33 times more at
    risk if she cohabits;

  • Three times more apt to get pregnant, and males commit suicide at six-fold higher rates;

  • Twice as vulnerable to drop out of school;

  • Four times more likely to be in poverty. In divorce, household income in 1993 plunged
    from $43,600 to $25,300, a 42 percent drop.

     If the parent remarries, the children's prospects grow worse. They are more likely to be disruptive in school than children of divorce, and girls are 6-40 times more likely to be sexually abused by stepfathers than by biological fathers.

     Even more chilling, Fagan and Rector cite dozens of studies showing that many children of divorce become dysfunctional adults: ''Even 30 years after the divorce, negative long-term effects were clearly present in the income, health and behavior of many of the grown offspring.'' They have more failed romantic relationships, a greater number of sexual partners, are 2-3 times as apt to cohabit, are less trusting of fiances, less giving to them and are twice as likely to divorce.

     When both are from divorced homes their risk of divorce is as much as 620 percent higher in early years of marriage. Thus the ''marital instability of one generation is passed on to the next.''

     One reason that children of divorce do poorly is that many lose their faith. They worship less frequently which has ''serious consequences because religious practice has been found to have beneficial effects on such factors as physical and mental health, education level, income, virginity, marital stability, crime, addiction and general happiness,'' reports Heritage. ''Church attendance is the most significant predictor of marital stability...lower crime rates, better health and longevity.''

     Thus, divorce ''weakens relationships, communities, cities, states and the nation. The increases in the rates of child abuse and neglect, crime, behavioral and emotional problems, health problems, cohabitation, future divorce and out-of-wedlock births as well as the decrease in religious worship, educational attainment and income potential should alarm every policymaker and community leader.''

     Heritage's surprising conclusion is that more government is needed. Though it is a very conservative think tank that usually urges less government, Heritage notes that federal and state governments spend $150 billion per year to subsidize single parent families and only $150 million to strengthen marriage. ''Thus, for every $1,000 spent to deal with the effects of family disintegration, only $1 is spent to prevent that disintegration,'' a ''folly...evident to all.''

     It suggests a compelling agenda to those running for state or federal government office:

  1. ''Establish by resolution, a national goal of reducing divorce among families with children by one-third over the next decade. It would send a clear signal to parents that society values marriage and is concerned about the effects of divorce on children.''

  2. ''Establish pro-marriage demonstration programs to provide training in marriage skills to provide young people, dating couples and married couples with the information and tools necessary to help them build and maintain a strong marriage including an understanding of the major reasons why marriages break up. The programs also should seek to develop skills for handling conflict, dealing with change and enhancing the marital relationship. Such pro-marriage services should be offered in a variety of venues: churches, community centers, courts, maternity and childbirth clinics, health centers, welfare offices, military bases and high schools.''

    Heritage notes state governments have $6 billion of ''surplus welfare funds'' to pay for these initiatives, but virtually no money has been spent on them, though one goal of the welfare reform law is to ''encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.'

  3. States are urged to ''end no-fault divorce for parents with children under 18.'' Divorces
    for parents should only be granted by ''mutual consent'' or if fault is proven and only if ''grave
    harm will be visited upon the children by the continuance of the marriage.''

     More next week on Heritage's remarkable report.

- Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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