Is Making Divorce Easier Bad for Children?

Summary of working paper 7968
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Children who grew up in the "easier-divorce" states are in fact worse off in a number of ways.

Most U.S. states now allow for unilateral no-fault divorce, whereby one spouse can obtain a divorce without the consent of his or her partner, solely on the grounds of spousal incompatibility. This stands in contrast to historical state regulations which provided for divorce only for grounds, such as infidelity and physical abuse, and when it was mutually agreed upon by both partners. These older laws often were viewed as imposing enormous financial and emotional burdens on divorcing couples, motivating the "no fault" revolution in divorce law in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Yet many states are now concerned that today's laws make divorce too easy, and a number of states are considering changes to divorce regimes which would move away from the current looser regulations. A primary motivation for this movement has been the perceived negative impact of divorce on children.

In Is Making Divorce Easier Bad for Children? The Long Run Implications of Unilateral Divorce (NBER Working Paper No. 7968), NBER Research Associate Jonathan Gruber finds that unilateral divorce regulations have significantly increased the odds of an adult being divorced (by 11.6 percent) and of a child living with a divorced parent: children were14.5 percent more likely than under the old laws to be living with a divorced mother and 11.1 percent more likely to be living with a divorced father.

Gruber then assesses the impact of easier divorce regimes on the long-run well being of children. He compares the adult circumstances of children who grew up in states where unilateral divorce was available versus children who grew up in states where it was not available. He finds that children who grew up in the "easier-divorce" states are in fact worse off in a number of ways. They are less well educated, with a particularly large increase in their odds of being a high school dropout or graduate as opposed to going on to attend or complete college. They also live in families with lower incomes. This appears to be primarily because these families involve earlier marriage, having more children, and an increased tendency for the women to not work for pay but rather to be home with their children.

These effects on marriage are particularly interesting. Children who grow up in states where divorce is easier are more likely to marry early, but these early marriages are also more likely to end in separation. By age 35, though, these children have similar odds of being married to their counterparts who grow up under stricter divorce regimes. Thus, the ultimate long-run impacts of being exposed to unilateral divorce depend on the implications for the "grandchildren" of unilateral divorce: being born into these earlier marriages and themselves subject to more marital separation. Because these effects are likely to be negative, it seems likely that making divorce easier is bad for children.

Gruber's study uses 40 years of census data to capture the variation in divorce regulations over states and time. He examines the effects of being exposed to unilateral divorce at all, and the variation in these effects by the amount of exposure. His findings indicate that increased exposure to unilateral divorce regimes worsens child outcomes, but only up to about eight years; after that, there is little additional harm from continuing exposure to these laws. Gruber notes that this is consistent with evidence that unilateral divorce may have only a short-run impact on the divorce rate.

Gruber also highlights the two channels through which making divorce easier can affect child outcomes: by increasing the odds that a child grows up in a divorced household; and by changing "bargaining power" between spouses, even in couples that don't split up. Under mutual divorce, a spouse who is less attached to a marriage (and potentially to the children) cannot leave without the other spouse's permission, giving the more attached spouse some power in negotiating the terms of the marriage. But when unilateral divorce comes into force, the less attached spouse can always leave whenever he or she likes, shifting the bargaining power away from the more attached spouse. This means that less attached spouses can take actions which are more beneficial to themselves and less beneficial to their spouses, and to their children; the more attached spouses may not be able to stop them because they have lost their bargaining power. For example, the less attached spouse can shift family spending away from educational resources to consumption goods, and the more attached spouse cannot stick up for the children without risking ending the marriage.

This feature also may account for why shifting to unilateral divorce is bad for children, even if their parents' marriages don't actually end. Gruber notes that his findings cannot distinguish these explanations, but that the large magnitudes of his effects, relative to the impact on divorce, suggest that bargaining power effects are important.

-- David R. Francis