Now that government belt-tightening has become a national obsession, divorce-reform advocates are making the argument that they can be part of the solution.
Divorce is costly for everyone, they argue, and encouraging troubled couples to try to work things out could benefit the national bottom line.
The average split costs a couple $2,500. A new single-parent family with children can cost the government $20,000 to $30,000 a year. That’s $33 billion to $112 billion a year total in divorce-related social-service subsidies and lost revenue.
The country is “absolutely” ready for divorce reform, said Chris Gersten, founder and chairman of the nonpartisan Coalition for Divorce Reform.
If states pass the coalition’s legislative model that aims at cutting divorce rates by a third in five years, “the savings to taxpayers will be pretty dramatic,” he said.
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, author and 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.
Americans have consistently supported more restrictive divorce laws. For more than 30 years, the General Social Survey asked Americans if divorce should be “easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?” The most popular answer is always “more difficult.”
But 40 years of no-fault divorce have made marital formation, disruption and reformation so accepted that Americans have “a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else,” Andrew J. Cherlin said in his 2009 book, “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.”
The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) - which has emerged as the pre-eminent source for marriage and divorce data because of its 2.2 million-household sample size - counted 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.
In contrast, no-fault divorce recently expanded into the one holdout state.
In 2010, New York lawmakers passed a law dropping the need for a “grounds” trial in contested divorces, and instead freed spouses to divorce without assigning fault. The public responded enthusiastically to the speedier divorce law: In the first seven months after the law went into effect, divorces rose 12 percent, compared to the previous year, the Business Review said, citing data from New York courts.
Not surprisingly, many family-law scholars, divorce lawyers and domestic-violence opponents oppose efforts to delay people’s ability to divorce.
When couples come to divorce lawyers, they usually have been through therapy already, said family law attorney Pamela J. Waggoner, chair of the family law section of the Minnesota State Bar Association.
“I don’t understand the necessity,” she said, of putting a reconciliation component into divorce-related or parenting programs. Since 1995, she said, she has seen only “two or three” couples halt the divorce process to think about reconciling.
Not backing down
And yet, divorce reformers can’t give up:
c Children of divorce are often stunted economically and can’t seem to work their way into higher-income levels, a 2010 study from Pew Charitable Trusts says.
c 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.
c Children of divorce have shorter life spans - by an average of five years - compared to children whose parents didn’t divorce, according to a new study by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin.
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.
Mr. Gersten’s coalition already has seen a victory: New Mexico state Sen. Mark Boitano introduced the Parental Divorce Reduction Act in this year’s session, and Mr. Gersten expects lawmakers in a dozen states to do so in 2012.
The act 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.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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