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A review of Economic Consequences of Divorce: The International Perspective. Edited by Lenore J. Weitzman and Mavis Maclean.

Feb 1, 1993

Oxford University Press, 1992.

In this volume 26 authors examine the social and economic consequences of divorce in a number of Western nations and in some Third World countries. Despite the differences which exist between these countries, the results of the studies undertaken show striking uniformity.

“Our collective research suggests that no society can continue to see divorce as a private matter between individual husbands and wives, or between individual parents and children. Instead, we must ask about its impact on the larger society and on the public purse. Indeed, we must ask about the costs of divorce for the society as a whole – and how those tremendous costs can be borne without destroying the fabric of either the family or the society.”

The title of this book, and the above quoted introductory paragraph, are somewhat misleading however. The book does not deal extensively with the negative effects of divorce. Instead, it concentrates on issues like alimony and child custody, by both looking at recent history and making policy proposals. For a detailed account of divorce’s harmful effects, the reader is referred to Lenore Weitzman’s earlier work, The Divorce Revolution (1985).

This volume does nonetheless present a number of important studies on how the aftermath of divorce affects women in various countries.

Harvard sociologist William Goode, for example, offers a good overview of divorce trends in the Western world. He notes the general increase in divorce curves, especially from the 1960s onwards. He points out that this increase is in the main coupled with the liberalization of divorce laws (although there are exceptions). One obvious result has been the increase in women-headed households.

Goode observes the reciprocal relationship between the large scale entrance of women, especially mothers, into the workforce and the higher rate of divorce among working women. Indeed, while higher divorce rates are usually found among the lower social strata, this trend is reversed for women who work, “that is, the higher their incomes, the higher their divorce rate.”

Also, Goode comments that “divorce is a consumer good” – divorce rates rise with prosperity and fall in a depression.

One very good chapter is by Princeton University Professor of Sociology Sara McLanahan. It is the one chapter which best befits the book’s title. It is a very well documented essay on the studies recently carried out on the effect divorce has on women and children.

“Until the early 1980s” says McLanahan, “many analysts as well as lay persons believed that divorce had no negative consequences for children, beyond the temporary stress associated with family disruption. This belief emerged during the 1970s, when divorce rates were at their peak, and legitimated the new ideology that children’s interests are best served when their parents pursue their own personal happiness.

“Since 1980 a number of studies based on large, nationally representative surveys have challenged this view by showing that divorce is associated with a number of long-term negative outcomes in children. While there is not definite proof that divorce itself causes lower attainment in children, there are good theoretical reasons for believing that it reduces the quantity and quality of parental investment, which in turn reduces the children’s well-being.”

McLanahan goes on to list some of the studies mentioned. Such research indicates that “children from mother-only families obtain fewer years of education and are more likely to drop out of high school than offspring from intact families”; are more likely to have ‘lower educational attainment and lower socio-economic status”; are more likely to “marry early and have children early, both in and out of wedlock”; and are more likely to “commit delinquent acts and to engage in drug and alcohol use.”

Three chapters in this volume are written by Australians, two from the Institute of Family Studies. Their emphasis, as with most writers in this book, is the perceived inequalities women experience after divorce. They call for greater equity in the settling of debts. Kathleen Funder of the AIFS, for example, states that a money value should be put on the depreciated earning capacities of women: “Fairness demands that the debt of continued depreciated earnings be claimed against the total assets of the partnership and by virtue of contributions to it.”

Most of the book is written in this vein: policy proposals to counter inequities in divorce settlements. Thus, as I mentioned, the somewhat misleading title of the book. Moreover, the conclusions drawn by the editors are not exactly pro-family pronouncements. For example, in the main, they endorse no-fault and unilateral concepts of divorce. Also, they call for more state help for families – an ambiguous call, since it can be quite helpful (e.g., tax breaks for families, etc., to really enable families to help themselves), or quite harmful (as in the Swedish model, where the state has basically subsumed the role of the parents in the raising of children). My guess is the latter approach is what most of these authors really have in mind. If so, the book is of limited value to those concerned about the traditional family and its diminishing role.

One final drawback with this book is its price: at $130 recommended retail price in Australia, it won’t exactly become a best seller. But it is a useful reference tool which can be checked out from libraries.

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