The Millstone Times July 2020

FAMILY MATTERS The Upside of Divorce? When Laws Make Divorce Easier, Research Shows Women Benefit, Outcomes Improve

Divorce usually conjures negative thoughts of broken homes and acrimony, but research now shows that divorce laws can actually have a positive effect on society and the economy. According to new research, laws that make it easier to divorce can improve the welfare of household members, even for couples that stay together. Divorce can be difficult and lead to less than ideal well-being out- comes. But studies both abroad and in the United States show di- vorce laws can play a positive role. Studies have shown there are unexpected positive ripple effects when laws make divorce easier and quicker, including: • The number of marriages increases by at least 9%. • Female suicides decrease by 8% to 16% and domestic vio- lence decreases by around 30%. • Women start working more outside of the home — up to 7 percentage points more – increasing their economic clout in a marriage by bringing income that they control into the home.

This story showcases one of the many independent research projects done by U.S. Census Bureau experts on topics relevant to the agency’s mission. When family laws shift property rights and provide payments directly to women upon divorce, wives have been shown to invest more in quality school- ing for their children and in schooling in general. Their leisure time increases and they start working more, decreasing the time they spend on household chores such as cleaning and cooking. The design of laws can also improve the welfare of all family members by helping to reduce violence or stress associated with intra-marital fighting. Making divorce easier reduces the costs associated with leaving an abusive or unhappy marriage. In a divorce, family courts redistribute resources gained during (and sometimes before) marriage. Women have more to gain in divorce if laws are more favorable to wives. The prospect of onerous alimony, child support and other divorce compensation increases wives’ bargaining power when they have the option to divorce. It may be less favorable for husbands, but the reverse is also true when divorce laws are more favorable to husbands. Divorce laws may also influence the quantity and gender of children within marriage. Easier access to divorce has been shown to reduce the number of births and, in China, divorce reform has decreased the probability of trying to have a son after a first-born daughter by around 12%. Also, laws that guarantee generous financial compensation upon divorce have been shown to increase first births among highly educated women. Know- ing that they will be compensated for lost wages reduces the risk of leaving the labor market to have children. Expanded alimony and child support and allowances for divorced mothers have been shown to increase investments in children’s schooling and cloth- ing. Jeffrey Gray, an economist, argued in the late 1990s that “…any divorce-law change that alters the financial well-being of divorcing women and their children will also impact the welfare of individuals in families that do not dissolve … these indirect effects should not be ignored when designing effec- tive social and economic policies.” Much of the research to date supports his claim. Continued on page 55...

54 The Millstone Times

July 2020

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