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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

History and Current Status of Divorce in the United States
Frank F. Furstenberg

The Implications of Marriage Family Patterns for Children's Welfare

Demographers and sociologists have had little success in forecasting family trends. However, there are many reasons for believing that the United States and other Western industrialized nations will continue to experience high levels of marital instability. Western family systems, and the United States in particular, place a high premium on individual choice and marital happiness.39,67 The combination of imposing extremely high standards for intimate relationships while providing social and economic alternatives to those who are not achieving the desired standard of marital closeness is a virtual formula for producing high rates of marital instability. The breakdown of the gender-based division of labor accompanied and solidified the divorce revolution, a revolution that had already begun in the United States owing to Americans' well-documented taste for conjugal contentment. It created alternatives for couples (women especially) who were discontent in marriage and, in turn, probably helped to change the standards for a satisfactory marital relationship.

If this explanation for why divorce is so prevalent in the West is basically correct, there is reason to be pessimistic about containing divorce, either through moral suasion or public policy measures. Even a generation ago, when severe social and legal sanctions against divorce were still in place, rates of marital dissolution were relatively high in the United States, as high as they are in most European countries today. Restoring those sanctions, reimposing stricter divorce laws, and mobilizing social opinion against those who end their marriages probably would not persuade individuals to remain in unrewarding relationships.

Raising the barriers to divorce might convince some couples to postpone marital dissolution for the sake of their children. Whether the net effect of such efforts would benefit children is very much an open question. Existing research strongly suggests that children in poor quality marriages with high conflict do as poorly, if not worse, than children in marriages that dissolve.60 On the other hand, children living with parents who are merely disaffected probably benefit from having them remain together. How much children would be protected by a return to the status quo ante, a regime with more restrictive divorce practices, is a matter for speculation.68

One likely consequence of restoring stricter divorce laws might be a further decline in marriage and an increase in nonmarital childbearing unless, of course, some effort was made to restigmatize unmarried parenthood. Recently, some attempts have been made to discourage the acceptance of single-parenthood. The most dramatic of these was the discussion initiated by Vice-President Dan Quayle to condemn the fictional character of Murphy Brown for having an out-of-wedlock child.69 However, long before the public debate over Murphy Brown's decision, various public campaigns had been mounted to reduce nonmarital childbearing among teenagers. None of these, including national efforts by the Urban League and the Children's Defense Fund, have been notably successful.70 This is not to say that public opinion cannot shift as a result of political dialogue. However, moral exhortation, however well-intentioned, is not easily accomplished in a society that is highly diverse and socially segmented. If many devout Catholics cannot be dissuaded from having premarital sex, using contraception, or even obtaining abortions, we should not hold out much hope of raising cultural sanctions against divorce and nonmarital childbearing.

Many have argued that recent efforts to strengthen child support enforcement may increase the men's sense of family obligations.71 Part of the rationale of the Family Support Act of 1988 was to shift some of the costs of child care to men, relieving the high burden that women bear for child support and the mounting public costs of programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).72 Some have argued that, as legal and social pressures for men to support their children mount, males may be less likely to desert their families because the economic costs of doing so will be greater. Similarly, the knowledge that they will be required to provide child support may make males more careful about impregnating partners with whom they have only casual ties.71

Stricter child support obligation is unlikely to have more than a modest effect on increasing marital stability or reducing nonmarital childbearing.73 On the positive side, these laws—and the publicity surrounding them—convey an ethic of responsibility to children. However, the certainty of child support could make men more hesitant about entering marriage and women less reluctant to leave unsatisfactory unions. The net effect may be to reinforce the current retreat from marriage. Indeed, since the passage of the Family Support Act of 1988, marriage rates have continued to drop, marriage age has continued to rise, divorce rates have remained stable, and nonmarital childbearing has risen. This is not to say that the Family Support Act has contributed to these trends, but, not surprisingly, this legislation and the publicity surrounding it seem to have had little effect on the family formation patterns of Americans.

Are there ways of stemming the erosion of marriage? At present, most public policy discussion has revolved around ways of discouraging divorce and nonmarital childbearing, largely through public rhetoric, rather than by designing measures to make marriage a more attractive and viable arrangement. Perhaps this emphasis is predictable because it is unclear how much can be done to shore up the institution of marriage. Besides, Americans are generally chary about policies designed to promote particular family arrangements.

At a minimum, most parents support some form of family life education in the schools that involves more careful consideration of the responsibilities and rewards of parenthood, that raises issues of gender roles and the difficulties of managing marriage. Efforts to prepare young people for parenthood, for entering and maintaining stable relationships are not highly controversial, but there is little evidence that family life education fosters commitment to marriage or encourages planned parenthood.

Much more controversial is the growing pressure to extend various welfare measures—common in some European nations—aimed at aiding parents with dependent children. Job security and income supplements for parents who are part-time workers, day care, parental leave, and family support allowances are economic measures designed to relieve strain on overburdened parents. Whether they also help to reduce marital breakup is not known. It might be argued that these types of family support programs make single-parent life more manageable and, thus, do little to reduce the breakup of parental unions.

Assuming that the breakdown of a gender-based division of labor is, at least, partly responsible for the destabilization of marriage from the 1960s to the present, some observers have insisted that a revision of gender roles is required to renew the institution of marriage. Family researchers have noted that considerable resistance exists to changes in the domestic division of labor.74 Some have seen the surge of divorce as a reflection of the problems of adjusting to changing gender expectations and have argued that, with more egalitarian marriages, marital discontent may decline. How to bring about changes in marital roles through public policy is not obvious.

Clearly, there is a place for public education, but such efforts are likely to be effective only if accompanied by structural change in opportunities. Even if this occurs, it is not certain that changing gender expectations will result in more stable and secure family lives for children. Greater sensitivity to gender inequality may actually continue to raise expectations about equity in marriage. At least in the short term, expectations may continue to rise more quickly than behavior. In other words, men may assume a greater share of the domestic burdens, but their contributions may be judged by more exacting standards if they continue to fall short of true equality.

In sum, it is difficult to identify plausible policies to strengthen the institution of marriage by making divorce and nonmarital childbearing measurably less attractive or marital stability more attractive. Accordingly, it is hard to foresee a rapid reversal of current family patterns in the direction of greater family stability.

Therefore, it may be necessary to consider alternative approaches to strengthening the situation of parents and children who are economically and socially disadvantaged by living in particular family forms. At least part of the deficit associated with growing up in a single-parent household results from rapid income loss and chronic poverty created by the loss of a parent who is both a wage earner and a supplier of unpaid domestic labor.

There are some policies that might help to reduce the huge income spread between two-parent and single-parent families and thereby improve the life chances of children who grow up in a nonnuclear family. Foremost among these is the provision of an effective child support assurance plan that provides income to children whose parents cannot or do not contribute to their support. Other measures, such as low-cost child care, health care, and workplace benefits to reduce the conflict between work and family roles, could also help overburdened single parents. I noted earlier that all of these measures might also contribute to the formation and preservation of unions between parents or parent surrogates. In short, these supports to parents are proposed to benefit children regardless of whether or not parents marry and stay married.

American citizens generally agree that we share responsibility for protecting our children's future.75 Presently, however, there is little public consensus on what that responsibility involves. More than our European counterparts, we Americans are inclined to voice strong moral concerns about the family and the well-being of children. But, our willingness to act on these concerns is undermined both by ideological disagreement and by distrust of government-sponsored interventions. At least for the time being, America's children are being held hostage to our inability to reach any kind of public consensus on a course for the future.