Broken Marriages

Study Details High Economic Costs of Divorce

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JUNE 21, 2009 ( Family breakdown is causing social anarchy, according to a speech by an English judge, Justice Paul Coleridge. A senior Family Division judge for England and Wales, he addressed the Family Holiday Association charity on Wednesday evening.

Coleridge accused mothers and fathers who fail to commit to each other of engaging in a game of «pass the partner» that has left millions of children «scarred for life,» according to a June 17 report in the Daily Mail newspaper.

In his speech supporting marriage, Coleridge called for a change in attitudes, so that the destruction of family life would attract social stigma.

«What is a matter of private concern when it is on a small scale becomes a matter of public concern when it reaches epidemic proportions,» he added.

The public dimension of marriage breakdown was the topic of a recent report by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada. Titled, «Private Choices, Public Costs: How failing families cost us all,» the Institute detailed the economic impact of marriage failure.

The study made an estimate of the cost of family breakdown in relation to government spending for the fiscal year 2005-06. The impact on the budget of help to broken families amounts to around 7 billion Canadian dollars (US$6.1 billion) a year.

The report also highlighted how marriage breakdown has a particularly damaging economic impact on women, leading to what it termed «the feminization of poverty.»

Although the study concentrated on the economic costs of family failure, it did also acknowledge the impact on children. Not only is divorce linked to poverty, but a large body of research demonstrates that children are better off being raised in a married, two-parent home, the institute pointed out.

Social impact

«Where families fail, as they so often do today, it is up to the rest of us, via government agencies and institutions, to pay for those failures,» the report commented.

Family breakdown is more than just divorce, the study pointed out. It includes couples who cohabit, single mothers who have never married or lived with the fathers of their babies.

Some affirm that family structure does not matter, the report observed. Family life, however, is not just a matter of consumer choice, the institute argued and given the economic impact of such decisions it is perfectly legitimate for governments to be concerned about the future of family life. These choices are more than just a private arrangement, but are a vital part of society, the study affirmed.

While government programs can offer some support, they are a poor substitute for a strong family life. The institute cited a 2005 report that looked at the situation of people on social assistance in the province of New Brunswick.

In the study people commented on the great loss of self-esteem and the feeling of helplessness from being dependent on welfare. The institute added that family breakdown leads to what has been described as the three Ds: «dissolution, dysfunction and dad-lessness.»

The Canadian report referred to a study published in 2007 in the United Kingdom that examined the problem of poverty. To a great extent, the British study concluded, attempts by the government to alleviate poverty have failed and the poverty of those living on the margins of society is, instead, becoming more entrenched.

The breakdown in family structures has played a significant role in the problem of poverty in the United Kingdom, the study noted, leading to the conclusion that committed married couples lead to the best results for both children and adults.

The Canadian study admitted that intact families also require state help through welfare or subsidies. The proportion of those who need such assistance is, however, much lower than single-parent families.

Impact on children

The Institute commented that when divorce laws were liberalized in Canada it was generally assumed that what is good for the parents would be good for the kids. Subsequently, empirical research shows this has not been the case.

«Whether couples are married or not is a remarkably accurate predictor of outcomes for children on many social science scales, even when economic factors are excluded,» the report said.

A whole range of social outcomes, such as drug use, academic results, health and happiness, are affected by family structures. Both children and adults fare much better in a stable married situation.

«The point of debate should not be whether a lack of two married parents matters for children but rather what to do with the reality that it does,» the report commented.

Unfortunately, the study continued, the proportion of married-parent families is unmistakably decreasing, as the number of common-law and lone-parents families increase. This trend is also detrimental to economic stability, the report pointed out, given that married adults tend to participate more fully in the economy and generate increased tax revenues.

Economic burden

The report noted that opinions differ as to why being part of a married couple brings with it economic benefits. Some speculate that marriage promotes greater responsibility in both spouses, while others look at economic explanations, for instance the ability of two partners to specialize and divide the many tasks of providing and caring for a family according to their own talents and abilities.

Whatever the reason there is most certainly an economic impact. The institute referred to a variety of international studies on the cost of family breakdown. A February 2009 report from the British Relationships Foundation, described as a non-partisan think tank dedicated to enhancing and improving relationships for a stronger society, put the cost of family breakdown there at 37.03 billion pounds ($61.07 billion) annually.

Another report, this one by the London-based Centre for Social Justice, put the cost of family breakdown in the United Kingdom at an annual rate of 20 billion pounds ($32 billion).

Returning to Canada, the institute calculated that if family breakdown could be cut in half, the direct taxpayer costs of poverty alleviation for broken and single-parent families would be reduced by close to 2 billion Canadian dollars (US$1.76 billion) annually.

Canadian census data shows that two-parent families are the least dependent upon government assistance, single-father households are more dependent, and single-mother households the most dependent.

Happier and healthier

In addition, such a reduction would also greatly reduce the suffering and trauma of family breakdown. «Members of families that remain intact would be happier, healthier and wealthier, but there are also benefits that extend beyond these families,» the report added.

Society needs healthy families in order to flourish. «Neighborhoods in which adult male role models are scarce contribute to a culture of machismo, violence and irresponsibility for young men which harms even those children who live with both their parents,» it argued.

The institute concluded the report with a list of recommendations. They ranged from marriage education at high schools to making information available on the public benefits of marriage, and the costs of divorce.

The report also called for the government to publish clearer data on how much is spent supporting cohabiting and single parents. It also recommended reforming the taxation system to give a break to married couples.

Governments need to understand the difference between marriage and cohabitation, and they should promote marriage for all the benefits it offers over cohabitation, the study urged. Valid points founded on strong empirical evidence.

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