By Penna Dexter
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention
A recent Newsweek cover story, entitled The Divorce Generation Grows Up, chronicles the history of divorce by spotlighting a middle class suburban community. A generation ago, learning that someone was divorced was still a bit shocking. No longer. Back then, divorcing parents reasoned that a split was better for children than conflict in the home. Today, that’s a tough case to make.
Newsweek’s David Jefferson used a captivating device to write his story. He interviewed several of his classmates at Ulysses S. Grant High School in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley to see how the class of ’82 had been affected by divorce.
The divorce rate in 1982 was more than double that of the 1950s. It had grown in the fertile ground tilled by the feminists’ message that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Then, in 1969, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law, allowing one partner to end a marriage simply by citing “irreconcilable differences.” The divorce rate shot up. By 1981, the peak year for the divorce rate, 5.3 per 1000 people were getting divorced every year. The rate is lower today, but marriage is also down. Sadly, every year, more than one million children watch their parents split, triple the number who did so in the 1950s. Studies show these kids are twice as likely as their peers to get divorced themselves, and more likely to postpone marriage, or never to marry at all. They also experience more academic, psychological and behavioral problems.
The Newsweek story delves into the personal impact divorce had on David Jefferson and twelve of his now 44-year-old classmates. During high school, most of them were pretty quiet about how their parents’ divorces were affecting them. There was a stigma around divorce then. The less said the better. If your last name was different than your parents’ you were obliged to explain. But only best friends had to know about summers and holidays spent out of state or that you lived separately from siblings. And you certainly didn’t advertise that you’d spent your elementary school years wearing a necklace with a key that unlocked a lonely house every afternoon.
Twenty-six years after graduation, fewer than half of David Jefferson’s classmates are in their first marriages. Several admitted reticence to marry at all. Others are raising children alone. Two, including Jefferson, are in homosexual relationships. All describe divorce’s negatives: sadness, isolation, and loss of innocence. Still, most of them don’t blame their parents.
The Newsweek story—headlined Splitsville on the cover—describes divorce in terms of the cost to human happiness. But divorce also exacts a price from society in dollars and cents. A study recently released by Georgia State University reveals that divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing cost the American taxpayer $112 billion a year. Researchers set out to measure the cost of “family fragmentation” by analyzing the expenses associated with welfare, health care, criminal justice and education. The $112 billion also includes lost tax revenue from individuals who are more likely to be poor or to be imprisoned for a part of their wage-earning lives. According to the sponsors of the study, the major takeaway is that government should invest more in programs that advocate and strengthen marriage. These stats should certainly be dropped into the current battle over the funding of abstinence education. The research also provides ammunition for those seeking changes in divorce laws.
That’s why it’s crazy to even think about writing off social conservatism as a major factor in this election cycle.
A lot of people are saying that the November election is going to be all about the economy. With the mortgage mess, the falling dollar, rising oil and food prices affecting voters, social conservatives are being told that their issues (life, marriage, family) won’t be as prominent as they were in the last election cycle. Economic conservatives, pushing low taxes and small government policies as fixes for the economy, sometimes see the moral issues as a distraction. Their argument is something like “Why should I care how people conduct their personal lives? In a free country, that’s none of government’s business.”
But it should be. When people deviate from the biblical model for the family, it gets expensive for the country.
Overall, two-parent families are better off economically than families headed by single parents. Two-parent homes are much more likely to be financially self-sufficient and not to need help from the government. Divorce has a disproportionately negative effect on a woman’s financial situation and that of the children she’s raising. Households headed by women who were never married are even more likely to be poor. In many of these situations, the government has to come in to pick up the pieces, providing welfare, health care, job training and child care subsidies.
All this is evidence that God’s plan for the family was very wise. Marriage was His idea. Historically, homes headed by married couples have been the best environment in which to raise children. It’s not just about providing for them financially. Children living with their married biological parents do better in every category: emotionally, academically and physically. They end up being more productive people and are less inclined to get in trouble with the law. They are less likely to be single parents themselves and also less likely to end up on welfare.
To the extent that religious and social convictions encourage people to marry and stay married, government is less necessary. When marriage declines in a culture, government must replace the family in the lives of citizens.
Economic conservatives should welcome the faith community’s emphasis on marriage. To the extent that our government can assume that most of the people in the nation will live in strong families, government will be smaller. Smaller government means fewer regulations, lower taxes and more individual freedom. Social and economic conservatives have a stake in strengthening marriage in America.