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Guest Post: The Cost of Family Fragmentation in Idaho – $127 Million a Year

April 30th, 2008 by Halli

From Bryan Fischer, Idaho Values Alliance

We often hear that divorce and unwed childbirths are nobody’s business, and especially that the government should just keep its nose out of such matters.

And perhaps those who make such an argument would have a point if family fragmentation imposed no impact on society at large, and if public resources did not have to be allocated to mitigate that impact.

But, as a recent report produced by the Institute for American Values reveals, family fragmentation most definitely is the government’s business, since it costs government at all levels $112 billion a year (over $1 trillion each decade) to deal with the severe consequences of marital breakups and out-of-wedlock births.

(Currently, more than 25% of white babies are born out of wedlock, as are 46 percent of Hispanic babies and an astonishing 69 percent of African-American babies. Divorce rates remain high today compared to rates prior to 1970, and Idaho’s divorce rate is more than 40% higher than the national average.)

These costs arise as lawmakers are forced to spend taxpayer funds to cope with poverty, crime, and educational challenges linked to the breakdown in the nuclear family. Further, government loses revenue because of lower levels of taxes paid by individuals who earn less as adults because they have grown up in poverty.

When parents divorce or fail to marry in the first place, their children suffer from an increased risk of poverty, mental illness, juvenile delinquency (due to loss of family stability and parental supervision), sexual abuse, substance abuse, educational failure and teen pregnancy.

The social costs of divorce and unwed childbearing are enormous, as lawmakers must grapple with higher rates of crime, drug abuse, illness, welfare expenditures, remedial education programs, day-care subsidies, child-support collection costs, and the increased cost of foster care and child protection services.

We must not think Idaho is immune from these pressures. The study indicates that Idaho taxpayers must spend $127 million a year to deal with family fragmentation right here in the Gem State, including an impact of $60 million on the criminal justice system alone.

Foregone revenue, Medicaid, SCHIP and child welfare costs make up the other $57 million.

A single-parent household headed by a female is the greatest single predictor of poverty, while at the same time, marriage has been proven to be the greatest single poverty-reducing mechanism in society.

In fact, almost all of the increase in poverty observed among divorced mothers is traceable directly to the divorce. Less than one percent of women and children live in poverty if their first marriage is intact, while 24 percent of divorced women with children are living in poverty.

This study estimates that if marriage would reduce the poverty rate among female-headed households by a reasonably expected amount, we could reduce the number of Idaho children living in poverty by almost 33 percent, and reduce the overall poverty rate in the state by 30 percent. (Some estimates in the literature suggest reductions of 65-80 percent.)

In other words, the most compassionate thing we can do for Idaho’s women and children is to strengthen the institution of marriage.

Eliminating unilateral “no-fault” divorce in favor of “mutual consent” divorce would be one step in this direction. It would raise the bar for the institution of marriage in Idaho, as it would send the message to Idahoans that we take marriage seriously in this state, and we will expect you to honor the sacred commitment you make in marriage just as we expect you to honor much lesser commitments, such as the commitment you make when you take out a mortgage on your house or lease a car.

“Mutual consent” divorce would also give “innocent” victims of an unwanted divorce some legal protection and bargaining power in the dissolution process, whereas currently they have none. And it would minimize government intrusion into family breakups, since, in a mutual consent divorce, these matters would be worked out between the couple before they ever come into court.

When “no fault” divorce was added to Idaho code (in 1970), marriage became the only social contract in which the state guarantees a legal victory to the individual who wants to break a contract without cause. Certainly we can and must do better.

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