Family breakdown costs $112 billion

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--High rates of divorce and unmarried childbearing cost U.S. taxpayers at least $112 billion each year, making marriage enrichment a legitimate policy concern, a first-of-its-kind study sponsored by four public policy and research groups said.

"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," Ben Scafidi, the lead researcher and an economics professor at Georgia College & State University, said.

"Prior research shows that marriage lifts single mothers out of poverty and therefore reduces the need for costly social benefits," Scafidi added. "This new report shows that public concern about the decline of marriage need not be based only on 'moral' concerns, but that reducing high taxpayer costs of family fragmentation is a legitimate concern of government, policymakers and legislators, as well as community reformers and faith communities."

The study, released in mid-April, was sponsored by the Institute for American Values, the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, the Georgia Family Council and Families Northwest.

Waylan Owens, associate professor of pastoral ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press that churches must accept some responsibility for the results revealed in the study.

"Too often, we have chosen not to stand firmly on the full biblical message regarding marriage and our vows to God and to each other even within our own congregations, much less outwardly to society," Owens said. "When we fail in this fundamental task, people in our churches and in our larger society, who depend upon a clear word from the Scriptures, can fall prey to those who would soften the warnings of Jesus, believing in turn that divorce is benign and that unwed childbirth is of little consequence."

Owens said the study confirms that "deviating from God's biblical plan of marriage for life is costly to everyone, not just to the individuals making the choices."

In addition to the estimate that family fragmentation costs taxpayers nationwide more than $1 trillion each decade, the report offered estimates for the costs of marriage breakdowns and single parenting for each state. Of the taxpayer costs, researchers estimated $70.1 billion are at the federal level, $33.3 billion are at the state level and $8.5 billion are at the local level.

Taxpayers in California have the highest state and local costs at $4.8 billion, while taxpayers in Wyoming have the lowest state and local costs at $61 million, the report said.

Anne Lowery, associate vice president for academic affairs and dean of graduate programs at the University of Mobile in Alabama, said she was not surprised at the findings.

"Through the years as I have taught economics, I have attempted to expose my students to the intersection of economics and ethics," said Lowery, who holds a doctor of business administration degree. "... I have taught students that a society's efficiency can be judged based on several criteria, including wealth creation, justice, social relations and pursuit of spirituality.

"The data for the U.S. point to the fact that we do a pretty good job with wealth creation and justice, but we are doing a terrible job in the areas of social relations and spirituality," she added in comments to BP.

Lowery said there is a clear economic consequence to the behaviors referenced in the study, and the broader taxpaying community shares the cost.

"The fact that a two-parent household can rear children in a more cost-effective manner is a no-brainer and points to the wisdom of the model for the family from the beginning of time in the Garden of Eden," Lowery said.

Researchers noted that each year the nation supports single-parent families with about $28 billion in Medicaid and $35 billion in other welfare programs. An additional $9 billion is spent on child-welfare costs, and an estimated $23 billion is lost in tax revenues because single-parent families often struggle with joblessness, the report said. Researchers estimate $19 billion goes to the maintenance of courts, police, prisons and jails that often are frequented by members of single-parent homes who statistically tend to be more involved in criminal activity.

Public officials for years have given little attention to trends of divorce and out of wedlock births, dismissing them as social problems, the researchers said, but the study suggests marriage is more than a moral or social institution -- it is an economic institution as a generator of social and human capital.

"This report now provides the basis for a national consensus that strengthening marriage is a legitimate policy concern," David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, said in a news release. "The report's numbers represent an extremely cautious estimate, a lower-bound figure, and have been vetted by a group of distinguished scholars and economists who have attached their names as advisors to this report."

Blankenhorn said even a small improvement in the health of marriage in America would result in significant savings to taxpayers.

"For example, a 1 percent reduction in rates of family fragmentation would save taxpayers $1.1 billion," he said.

Kathy Steele, assistant professor of psychology and counseling at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said the situation gives the church an opportunity to act by making more marriage enrichment opportunities available to church members and the local community.

"As believers in God Almighty, the creator of the institution of marriage, we have access to not only truth principles relating to marriage and family life, but we also have the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to live by those truths," Steele said. "Outstanding marital mentoring programs, as well as Christian marriage enrichment materials are available, and many can be led by ministers or laypeople since they do not require specialized degrees or counseling licenses."

In 2005, a researcher from Ohio State University found that divorce can have a devastating financial impact on a person's wealth but a steady marriage can nearly double it. The study, which was published in the Journal of Sociology, found that married people increased their wealth about 4 percent each year simply as a result of being married, when all other factors were constant.

Divorce reduces a person's wealth by about three-quarters, or 77 percent, compared to that of a single person, while being married almost doubles comparative wealth, or increases it by 93 percent, the Ohio State study found.


Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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