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May 18, 2011

Column #1,551

Why Is America’s Divorce Rate Highest in the World?

By Mike McManus

America’s divorce rate is the highest in the civilized world.  By one measure our divorce rate is triple that of Great Britain and France.  After five years of marriage, 23% of Americans have divorced, but only 8% of British or French. 

Divorce imposes a huge human cost, especially on children.   Every divorce is the destruction of a small civilization. Children of divorce are three times as likely as those from intact homes to be expelled from school or to have a baby out of wedlock as a teenager, six times as apt to live in poverty and are far more likely to be incarcerated.

However, statistics do not reveal the emotional pain of divorce, which is always particularly devastating for children.  Michael Reagan, the son of Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, wrote of his parents’ divorce:

          “Divorce is where two adults take everything that matters to a

           child – the child’s home, family, security, and sense of being loved

          and protected – and they smash it all up, leave it in ruins on the

          floor, then walk out and leave the child to clean up the mess.”   

           Ironically, his father, as Governor of California, signed America’s first No Fault Divorce Law four decades ago.  It swept the country in the early 1970's. Divorces had already doubled in the 1960s but soared after No Fault from 639,000 in 1969 to 1,036,000 by 1975. Before Reagan signed the law, to get a divorce one spouse had to prove the other was guilty of a major “fault” such as adultery or physical abuse.  If there was no alleged fault and both wanted the divorce, one might accuse the other of adultery while the spouse remained silent, This collusion was denounced by feminists and attorneys. “No Fault” was considered a reform because no fault had to be alleged to get a divorce.  One person simply asserted the marriage had “irreconcilable differences” and always got it. 

However, divorce is opposed in four out of five cases by the other spouse.  What was entered into by two people voluntarily is being terminated by one spouse acting unilaterally.  No Fault Divorce actually violates the Constitution. The 5th and 14th Amendments guarantee that “no person be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” How can there be “due process” if the spouse who wants to save the marriage always loses? That’s unjust.

The system is fairer in Britain and France. If one spouse wants a No Fault Divorce, and it is opposed by a mate, the couple must live apart five years in Britain or six years in France.  That time allows for much reconciliation. However, 32 states have no waiting period, offering no time for reconsideration. No wonder our divorce rate is three times higher.

There are economic consequences to these divorces. On average each divorce involves one child, which makes that family eligible for welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and a plethora of  subsidies.  The Heritage Foundation estimates that each divorce costs taxpayers $20,000, or $20 billion a year with a million divorces annually.  Each of the 1.7 million unwed births cost another $20,000 each or $34 billion.

Most states are facing yawning budget deficits for the fourth year in a row.  State budget gaps total $112 billion for fiscal year 2012.  Why? The recession is one reason.  However, America’s high divorce rate and the failure of millions to marry are the driving force behind soaring state and federal deficits

An anti-marriage bias lies behind these trends. State law – such as No Fault Divorce - promotes divorce. A “Parental Divorce Reduction Act,”  being considered by 13 states, would require a year’s waiting period before any divorce becomes final. Also, couples would be required to take pre-filing classes to learn the impact of divorce on both children and adults. And they must attend marriage education classes to learn how to resolve conflict amicably. That’s a double strategy to reduce divorce.

Similarly, state laws discourage marriage. States assume that an unmarried mother is a single parent needing big subsidies.  However, in more than half the cases, she is cohabiting with the father, and benefits from his income as if she were married.  In effect, the state is subsidizing couples to cohabit, rather than encouraging them to marry. And if a cohabiting couple marries, they lose most subsidies. No wonder the marriage rate has plunged 31% in only 19 years.

It’s time for state government to promote and preserve marriage – not divorce and cohabitation

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