Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing in North Carolina
By Alysse ElHage
North Carolina Family Policy Council
In 1987, country singer Michael Martin Murphy had a number one hit song called, “Long Line of Love.” In it, he assures his fiancée that their marriage will make it because he comes from generations of happily married couples.
One verse of the song notes, “I come from a long line of love. When the times get hard, we don’t give up. Forever is in my heart and in my blood.”1 Written by award-winning songwriter, Paul Overstreet, “Long Line of Love” was penned in era when divorce was skyrocketing, perhaps in an attempt to recall the days when family life was more secure.2
For many young adults today, and even for their parents, the song does not match their reality. Finding a family with an unbroken chain of lasting marriages is rare. Most people have either themselves divorced, or have family members who have divorced. The sad truth is that many Americans do not come from a “long line of love,” but of broken vows and splintered families.
Since the 1960s, divorce and single motherhood have been common events in most people’s lives, with more than one million children in the United States experiencing their parent’s divorce each year,3 and over one-third of all births occurring to unmarried women.4 Nationally, the percentage of children living with two married parents dropped from 85 percent in 1970 to 68 percent in 2005.5
In North Carolina, an average of 98 marriages end in divorce, and 140 children are born to unmarried women every day.6 As a result, 35 percent of children in the state are being raised in single-parent homes.7
More than just statistics, these numbers represent the reality of family life for increasing numbers of Americans, who are growing up in broken homes, often without the love and protection of their fathers, and with no example from their parents of how to make a marriage work. The rise in divorce and unwed childbearing comes at a great expense for the adults and children involved, but also for society, which bears the weight of the myriad of negative consequences that result when marriage breaks down. While children suffer the most damaging effects of family fragmentation, new research confirms what many sociologists and economists have long suspected-that divorce and unwed childbearing also have a financial impact on taxpayers.
Both the human and economic costs of family fragmentation are important to the ongoing public debate over the role of marriage in society, and how involved government should be in promoting and strengthening marriage among its citizens. Is marriage just a private relationship-a mere slip of paper-as some claim, or is it a social institution with very public implications, and therefore worthy of public concern?
Human Costs of Family Fragmentation
Based on a large and growing body of social science research, we now know that the end of marriage or the lack of it (through unwed child-bearing, for example) affects everything from men and women’s health and happiness, to children’s educational attainment, psychological well-being, substance use, predisposition to crime and likelihood of incarceration, and future relationship quality, including their chances of divorce.8
Karen, a single mother of two from Greenville, North Carolina, can testify to the massive suffering that results when a marriage breaks down. She has experienced what she calls the “collateral damage” of divorce from two different, yet related perspectives-first as a child of divorce and later as a divorced mother herself.
Karen’s first taste of divorce came at age two, when her father “ran off with a waitress.” As a result, she and her brother spent some of their childhood in poverty. She ended up leaving home to get married at age 16. Two years later, her husband walked out the door with nearly everything they owned, leaving Karen alone to raise their baby girl.
“Men leaving-that’s all I ever knew,” Karen says. “My dad left, and then I got married and my (first) husband left. I never knew a man to hang around except my grandfather.”
She moved in with her grandparents until she could get her own place. During this time, Karen walked to work every day to put in 14-hour shifts, struggling to support herself and her young child on a limited income since her ex-husband refused to pay child support.
Then, when her daughter was still a toddler, Karen met a hard-working Marine, who appeared to be the knight-in-shining-armor she had always dreamed of finding. They married, and he adopted her little girl, raising her as his own. A few years later, Karen gave birth to their son. She describes their marriage as happy, with very few serious arguments.
But over a decade into the marriage, her husband stunned Karen and the kids by leaving. He filed for divorce a few years later. After 15 years of marriage, she was left with another broken heart, shattered dreams, and two adolescent children who, like her, desperately wanted to know why.
Looking back, Karen says she never saw the divorce coming. “When I married the second time, I was mature enough and had become a Christian, so I was past the point of ‘oh, everybody leaves,'” she explains. “We were active in the church. I never expected this-I was blind-sided.”
Although her ex-husband continued to provide for them financially, the damage to the family was acute. “The divorce tore our family apart,” Karen recalls. “My ex-husband is in the military, and he spent a lot of time away from home anyway for his job, but we always knew dad was coming back. After the divorce, we had to accept that he wasn’t coming home this time. That was hard.”
Karen struggled with depression after her second marriage ended. “I was torn up a long time,” she admits. “I would go outside to the truck so my son could not see me, and just cry. For a long time, I couldn’t speak about it. I couldn’t do anything.”
Her daughter, who was 17 at the time of the divorce, got married a year later, probably, Karen believes, to escape the depressive atmosphere at home. Her son-who idealized his father and was on the brink of adolescence when he left-turned to drugs as an escape. Today, in his early 20s, he suffers from depression and still struggles with anger about the divorce.
Recently, Karen’s son told her, “Mom, all I want from Dad is to know why?”9
Economic Costs of Family Fragmentation
Karen’s story is an example of the havoc inflicted on adults and children by family fragmentation. For years, social scientists have speculated that in addition to the human costs, divorce and unwed childbearing also carry a huge price tag for taxpayers, noting that some repercussions of family fragmentation create a need for government intervention through various social programs. Unfortunately, until recently, there has been little significant data to back up the claim that family fragmentation also comes at great economic expense for society. That changed in April 2008 with the release of a groundbreaking report that calculates the taxpayer costs of divorce and unwed childbearing for all 50 states.
“This study documents for the first time, that divorce and unwed childbearing-besides being bad for children-are also costing taxpayers a ton of money,” said David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values (IAV), one of four marriage advocacy groups behind the study, entitled, “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing.” The study was also co-sponsored by Georgia Family Council, the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, and Families Northwest.10
“Marriage advocates up until today have been fairly tongue-tied when it comes to this third argument [that family fragmentation has economic costs],” Blankenhorn explained at a press conference on April 15 at the National Press Club. “Why? Because we haven’t had good evidence. We’ve had speculation, we’ve had good guesses…but we haven’t really had a rigorous study producing hard data, until today.”11
Key Findings: According to the IAV study, divorce and unwed childbearing cost U.S. taxpayers at least $112 billion a year, or over $1 trillion a decade. The $112 billion includes: $70.1 billion at the federal level, $33.3 billion at the state level, and $8.5 billion at the local level.12
In North Carolina, the study estimates that divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers at least $1.3 billion a year, with family fragmentation accounting for 11 percent of the state and local tax burden.13 (See the sidebar on page 25 for cost breakdown).
“These costs are due to increased taxpayer expenditures for anti-poverty, criminal justice and education programs, and through lower levels of taxes paid by individuals whose adult productivity has been negatively affected by increased childhood poverty caused by family fragmentation,” explained Dr. Ben Scafidi, an economics professor at Georgia State College and University, who served as the study’s principal investigator.14
Specifically, the IAV study calculated costs related to foregone tax revenue (or “lower levels of taxes paid by individuals who, as adults, earn less because of reduced opportunities as a result of having been more likely to grow up in poverty”), including income taxes, Social Security and Medicare taxes, and state and local taxes.15 It also measured costs resulting from increased spending on the following federal programs:
- Temporary Assistance for Need Families (TANF) cash assistance
- Food Stamps
- Housing Assistance
- State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)
- Child Welfare programs
- Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
- Low income home energy assistance program
- Head Start
- School lunch and breakfast programs
- Justice system16
Poverty and Family Fragmentation
At the press conference announcing the IAV study, Dr. Scafidi explained that he purposefully structured his calculations in a way that would result in an underestimate of the taxpayer costs of family fragmentation.17 To achieve a lower-end estimate, he based the study on the assumption that all of the “taxpayer costs [of family fragmentation] are driven exclusively by increases in poverty.”18
Dr. Scafidi ignored the large body of research, which shows that, in addition to reducing poverty, marriage also has a broad array of benefits for children and society that reduce the need for government intervention. For example, when he calculated the costs related to the justice system, he ignored evidence that boys raised in single mother homes are more likely than boys raised in intact married families to commit crimes and go to jail, and instead assumed that reductions in crime are solely due to reductions in poverty from marriage.19 As a result, the study concedes that, “the actual taxpayer costs of the retreat from marriage are likely much higher.”20
The IAV study explains that, “the effect of marriage on poverty has been well established, is widely accepted, and can be reasonably quantified.” In fact, a significant percentage of female-headed households live in poverty. In North Carolina, for example, single women account for 56.2 percent of the 1.2 million households in poverty.21
Single-mother households are also more likely to use government assistance programs than poor married households. According to the study, single-mother households with incomes less than 200 percent of the poverty line are 2.6 times more likely to receive Food Stamps, 2.9 percent more likely to receive cash assistance, and 1.56 times more likely to receive Medicaid, than married households earning less than 200 percent of the poverty line.22
Family fragmentation also effects child poverty. The IAV study shows that of the 449,000 children living in poverty in North Carolina in 2006, 285,000 lived with their unmarried mother, compared to 131,000 in two-married parent households, and 33,000 in cohabiting partner households.23
According to Dr. Scafidi, “Prior research shows that marriage lifts single mothers out of poverty and therefore reduces the need for costly social benefits.” For the study, he adopted the “cautious assumption,” that 60 percent of single mothers who get married will leave poverty.24 The study notes that marriage reduces poverty by bringing together two individuals who earn income and share living expenses, and by helping to change the behaviors, habits or customs of the couple.25
More Marriage Equals Less Taxes
The IAV study shows that strengthening and encouraging marriage would help reduce a significant chunk of the tax burden on Americans. “Even a small improvement in the health of marriages in American would result in enormous savings to taxpayers,” said Blankenhorn. “For example, a one percent reduction in the rates of family fragmentation would save taxpayers $1.1 billion.”26
Based on the assumption that marriage can lift 60 percent of single mothers who marry out of poverty, the IAV study estimates that increases in healthy marriages in North Carolina could reduce total poverty by 33.7 percent, and save taxpayers $1.3 billion.27
A Worthwhile Endeavor
The real victims of family fragmentation are not taxpayers but people like Karen and her children, whose suffering is nearly impossible to measure. Still, the IAV study documents that taxpayers are paying a significant price for the nation’s high rates of divorce and unwed childbearing. The $112 billion annual cost of divorce and unwed childbearing for American taxpayers is proof that marriage is a public institution with far-reaching moral, social, and economic consequences. As such, the well being of marriage is fundamental to the health and prosperity of this nation and state. In addition to the human suffering caused by family fragmentation, lawmakers and business leaders now have a fiscal reason to support marriage education programs at the national, state and local levels. Reducing divorce and unwed childbearing in North Carolina and the nation will not only improve the lives of millions of children and adults; it will also save taxpayers billions of dollars.
Foundation, http://www.nashvillesongwritersfoundation.com/ (scroll down to Paul Overstreet).
3. Olson, David H. and Amy Olson-Sigg, “Just the Facts: Marriage and Family Facts-2007,” Marriage CoMission, at: www.marriagecomission.com/go/justthefacts.
6. North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics, “A Typical Day in North Carolina, 2006,” http://www.schs.state.nc.us/SCHS/vitalstats/2006/day.html#births
7. Kids Count Data Center, “Children in Single-Parent Families: 2006,” Profiles by Region: North Carolina, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Found at: http://www.kidscount.org/datacenter/profile_results.jsp?r=35&d=1&c=9&p=5&x=121&y=4
10. Institute for American Values, Georgia Family Council, Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, and Families Northwest, “Marriage Breakdown Costs Taxpayers at Least $112 Billion a Year,” Press Release, 4/15/08, http://www.americanvalues.org/coff/pressrelease.pdf
This article was used by permission of the North Carolina Family Policy Council.
To view other articles by the North Carolina Family Policy Council, visit their web site at www.ncfamily.org.