May 20, 2013 | 01:24 PM (BD Time)
20 May, 2013 Monday
Broken families rob children of their prosperity
Patrick Fagan, Ph.D.:
Much of the debate about the growing gap between rich and poor in America focuses on the changing job force, the cost of living, and the tax and regulatory structure that hamstrings businesses and employees. But analysis of the social science literature demonstrates that the root cause of poverty and income disparity is linked undeniably to the presence or absence of marriage. Broken families earn less and experience lower levels of educational achievement. Worse, they pass the prospect of meager incomes and Family instability on to their children, ensuring a continuing if not expanding cycle of economic distress.
Simply put, whether or not a child's parents are married and stay married has a massive affect on his or her future prosperity and that of the next generation. Unfortunately, the growth in the number of children born into broken families in America--from 12 for every 100 born in 1950 to 58 for every 100 born in 19922 --has become a seemingly unbreakable cycle that the federal government not only continues to ignore, but even promotes through some of its policies.
Numerous academic and social science researchers have demonstrated how the path to achieving a decent and stable income is still the traditional one: complete school, get a job, get married, then have children, in that order. Obviously, the journey toward a secure income can be derailed by choices growing children make, such as dropping out of school or getting pregnant before marriage. But generally, children who grow up in a stable, two-parent Family have the best prospects for achieving income security as adults.
Because of recent advances in the methods social scientists and economists use to collect data, researchers are taking a broader intergenerational view of America's poor. From this vantage point, it has become clear that federal policies over the past three decades have promoted Welfare dependency and single-parent families over married parents while frittering away the benefits of a vigorous free market and strong economy. Today, the economic and social future of children in the poor and the middle class is being undermined by a culture that promotes teenage sex, divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock birth.
Fortunately, the federal government and states and local communities can play important roles in changing this culture to ensure that all children reach their full income potential and do not languish in the poverty trap.
To understand the importance of marriage to prosperity, and what the determinants of a stable marriage are, it is important to look first at the evidence surrounding the effects of its alternatives--divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births--on children and on income.
Sadly, almost half of American families experience poverty following a divorce, and 75 percent of all women who apply for Welfare benefits do so because of a disrupted marriage or a disrupted relationship in which they live with a male outside of marriage.
Divorce has many harmful effects on the income of families and future generations. Its immediate effects can be seen in data reported in 1994 by Mary Corcoran, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan: "During the years children lived with two parents, their Family incomes averaged $43,600, and when these same children lived with one parent, their Family incomes averaged $25,300." In other words, the household income of a child's Family dropped on average about 42 percent following divorce. By 1997, 8.15 million children were living with a divorced single parent. As Chart 4 illustrates, there has been an increase of 354 percent since 1950.
As substantial as this income reduction is, little public attention is paid to the relationship between the breakdown of marriage and poverty. Consider, by comparison, the reaction to a comparable decrease in the national economy. When America's economic productivity fell by 2.1 percent from 1981 to 1982, it was called a recession. And when the economy contracted by 30.5 percent from $203 million to $141 million (in constant 1958 dollars) from 1929 to 1933, it was called the Great Depression. Yet each and every year for the past 27 years, over one million children have experienced divorce in their families with an associated reduction in Family income that ranged from 28 percent to 42 percent. It is no wonder that three-fourths of all women applying for Welfare benefits do so because of a disruption of marriage.9
Understandably, mothers who are employed at the time of divorce are much less likely to become Welfare recipients than are mothers who do not work. And mothers who are not employed in the workforce at the time of divorce are as close to going on Welfare as are single mothers who lose their jobs. Divorce is the main factor in determining the length of "poverty spells," particularly for women whose pre-divorce Family income was in the bottom half of the income distribution. Divorce, then, poses the greatest threat to women in low-income families. Moreover, almost 50 percent of households with children move into poverty following divorce. Simply put, divorce has become too prevalent and affects an ever-increasing number of children.
In the 1950s, the rate of divorce was lower among high-income groups; by 1960, there was a convergence of rates among all socioeconomic groups.14 By 1975, for the first time, more marriages ended in divorce than in death. Since 1960, there has been a significant shift in the ratio of children deprived of married parents by death compared with those so deprived by divorce. Compared with the number of children who lost a parent through death, 75 percent, 150 percent, and 580 percent as many, respectively, lost a parent through divorce in 1960, in 1986, and in 1995.
Divorce is linked to a number of serious problems beyond the immediate economic problem of lost income. For instance, the children of divorced parents are more likely to get pregnant and give birth outside of marriage, especially if the divorce occurred during their mid-teenage years, and twice as likely to cohabit than are children of married parents. Moreover, divorce appears to result in a reduction of the educational accomplishments of the affected children, weakens their psychological and physical health, and predisposes them to rapid initiation of sexual relationships and higher levels of marital instability. It also raises the probability that they will never marry, especially for boys.
For a mother with children, divorce increases her financial responsibility and, typically, her hours of laboroutside the home. Divorce and additional work hours also disrupt her network of support for parenting her children.23 These additional stresses take their toll: Single mothers experience increased levels of physical and mental illness, addictions, and even suicide following divorce. All of these outcomes have an effect on Family income.
Moreover, the consequences of divorce flow from generation to generation, since the children of divorce are more likely to experience the same problems and pass them on to their own children. Significantly, these effects are markedly different from the effect that the death of a married parent has on children; in fact, such children are less likely than the average to divorce when they grow up.
Divorce and Asset Formation. Little research has been done on the effect of divorce on the assets accumulated over time by a household, but a RAND Corporation study indicates that the effect may be dramatic: Family structure is strongly tied to wealth by the time one reaches the sixth decade of life. The assets of married couples in their fifties (who are approaching retirement) are four times greater than those of their divorced peers. (See Chart 5.) Even when the two divorced households' assets on avera
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