In her first year, Candy Lightener and friends met with then-Gov. Jerry Brown of
California, to ask for his support. He was cordial, but nothing happened. Chuck Hurley, CEO of MADD, recalls that their first success came when they persuaded Congress in 1984 to add an amendment to the Transportation Appropriations Law that reduced a state’s federal highway funding by 5%, unless they had or passed a state law setting 21 as the minimum age at which one could buy alcohol. A wave of legislation followed. A similar amendment in 2000 reduced highway funding by 5% if states did not define drunk driving as .08 BAC. “When you have a formula for success, you don’t change your strategy!” Hurley told me.
Result: In 1982 there were 30,600 traffic fatalities due to drunk driving. By 2006, that number plunged to only 17,600.
The MADD success suggests two important strategies to spark divorce reform:
1) Create “Citizens for Divorce Reform”
2) Make Slashing the Divorce Rate in Half a 2008 Presidential Campaign Issue
1) Create “Citizens For Divorce Reform”
State divorce laws will not be changed until citizens hurt by divorce become aroused enough to demand change. Attorneys dominate state Judiciary Committees, where any legislation to change marriage & divorce laws would originate. Thus far, only the marriage experts have been heard on divorce reform, but legislators pay no attention to them on such a volatile issue. They need to hear from their constituents. Thus, the key to create a movement of thousands of citizens willing to call up their state legislators and urge them to act. We propose creating a group like MADD that we have tentatively called “Citizens For Divorce Reform.” PFDR lacks the snappy acronym of MADD, but it is designed to motivate parents who had an unwanted divorce forced upon them – to stop blaming their ex-spouse and focus instead on the law which makes divorce too easy to obtain, which polls indicate is a belief shared by 61% of Americans.
However, polls do not persuade legislators. They indicate, however, that there is a great potential for the movement we envision. Who might be mobilized? Five groups who know the pain of divorce from first-hand experience:
1. Adult Children of Divorce. As noted earlier, just since 1970, 41 million children saw their parents divorce. Perhaps another 15 million were shattered by a parental divorce in the 1950-1970 years. That would yield about 35 million adult children of divorce, who are the most likely leg soldiers of this movement. Many resent their parents divorce, but have not realized political action is possible. Some are angry about divorce because they not only experienced their parents’ divorce – but because they did not know how to make a marriage work, also suffered from a personal divorce or broken cohabitation relationships. But they know nothing about the No Fault causes of divorce, nor anything about the remedies. They are the first target of this website.
2. Adult Children of Non-Marriage. The number of children born out-of-wedlock reached a million a year about 20 years ago, surpassing the number affected by divorce. The numbers of adult children of unwed parents are in the 10-15 million range. These children fare the worst in the culture, and are less likely to yield many leaders for this movement, vs. children of divorce who generally grew up in middle class homes. However, there are people like Dr. Michael Ross, who grew up in poverty and foster homes who built a successful professional career, but whose life was shattered by an unwanted divorce. He is now leading “:Defend Our Father’s House,” a Catholic activist group in Michigan pushing for reforming divorce law and to create Community Marriage Policies to reduce divorce and cohabitation rates and raise marriage rates.
3. Victims of Divorce. Since 80% of divorces are filed against the will of one partner, there are lots of angry people who might be mobilized -- 43 million just since 1970. Many of the Community Marriage Policies that Marriage Savershelped clergy to organize were sparked by a victim of divorce, who wanted to turn their pain into a purpose of preventing others from suffering from their tragedy. They do not know anything about the unfairness of the law, but if they did, they would be motivated to lead this movement in many states. Undoubtedly, this is the most important constituency for Parents For Divorce Reform. A parent who has a divorce forced upon them often loses far more than his/her marriage. They lose their home, regular access to their children, and are forced to pay high child support costs. Even when it was their spouse who was unfaithful to the marriage, the person who files for divorce -- gains economic advantage and usually wins custody of the children. Our goal is to transfer that anger fired by injustice from the ex-spouse toward the law that always grants a divorce.
4. People who work with divorcing families. All kinds of influential people in the community are in a position to witness the carnage that goes on in divorce cases and how it affects parents and children. Judges, therapists, teachers, lawyers, clergy, social workers, and law enforcement officers are among the people who have contacted us (Marriage Savers) wanting to do something to reduce divorce, including changing the law. In each of these professions, most people probably do not question the current system, or have not considered how the law affects family breakdown, and how it could be changed. Nonetheless, there are many in the helping professions who do want to "go upstream" to reduce divorce. Such people are disproportionately valuable, credible leaders and allies.
5. Grandparents and other friends and relatives of divorced families. They often have more resources, time, clarity and objectivity than people who are in the midst of their own divorce or post-divorce warfare.
2) Make Slashing Divorce Rates in Half a 2008 Campaign Issue
What if the Presidential candidates – and those running for Congress, or for state government -- were asked, "Would you favor changes in state laws that could slash divorce rates in half, saving 500,000 children from seeing their parents divorce?
Probably, the politicians would ask some questions first. Why should divorce rates be reduced? How can it be cut in half? Isn’t it the role of state legislatures to write laws on marriage and divorce? How is marriage or divorce a federal issue on which Presidential candidates or those running for the House or Senate, could have anything useful to say?
Here are brief answers to each question:
1. Why Should Divorce Rates Be Cut In Half? No Fault Divorce is largely responsible for many of the 43 million divorces since 1970, shattering the lives of 41 million children. While many of them recovered and have built full lives, tens of millions of these children grew up fearful of marriage because they were fearful of divorce. So they lived together to test their relationships. Cohabitation soared ten-fold from 540,000 in 1970 to 5.6 million couples in 2006. Cohabiting couples think they are in a “trial marriage.” That is a myth, since 80 percent of such relationships break up before or after marriage,” as Harriet and Mike McManus report in their new book, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers. Cohabitation has become the stealth killer of marriage in
America. The McManuses call it “a double cancer of marriage,”diverting tens of millions from marrying and increasing the odds of divorce of those who do:
a) The Marriage Rate Has Plunged 50% since 1970. Why? The number of never-married Americans tripled from 21 million in 1970 to 60 million in 2006.
b) Cohabiters Increase Their Odds of Divorce by 50%. As Prof. Larry Bumpass of the
Wisconsin reports, “Marriages that are preceded by living together have 50% higher disruption rates than marriages without premarital cohabitation.”
2. How Can Divorce Rates Be Cut in Half? No Fault Divorce should be replaced with Mutual Consent Divorce when couples have children and there are no allegations of a major fault, such as adultery or physical abuse. This would change the bias of the law from favoring the destruction of marriage, to one of preserving marriage. The state has an interest in the future of children, and they are best reared by their own married mothers and fathers. With four of five spouses wanting to save their marriage, Mutual Consent would give them the leverage to save half of the marriages now headed for divorce.
3. Aren’t Marriage and
State Issues? Yes, state legislatures write laws on marriage and divorce. However, as noted above, not one state has replaced No Fault with Mutual Consent, though several have considered it. Why? The key committees are run by attorneys whose bias favors No Fault on which lawyers make lots of money.
4. How Can Slashing Divorce Rates Be Made a Federal Issue? As the MADD example illustrates, the Federal Government could give state legislatures a reason to consider Divorce Reform. It might reduce TANF (welfare) funding by 5% unless the states passed Mutual Consent Divorce Reform.
Background: When Congress passed Welfare Reform in 1996, it pledged to the states that public assistance (then called AFDC, renamed TANF for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) would continue as a $16.5 billion block grant. One goal of Welfare Reform was “to end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage.” TANF recipients were told they had to get a job and could receive welfare for a total of 5 years. Result: welfare rolls fell by 60%. However the TANF block grant was not reduced to the States, but remained $16.5 billion. Thus, the states have about a $10 billion TANF surplus. Thus it would be reasonable to reduce TANF by 5% if the state were not reforming divorce law. Two other reasons to do so are two other goals of Welfare Reform, as stated in the law:
a) “to prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies…
b) “to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.”
There has been absolutely no progress toward either goal – steep regression, in fact. In 1995, the year before Welfare Reform, there were 1.26 million out-of-wedlock births, 32.2% of all births.That number has risen steadily to 1.64 million in 2006, 38.5% of births. In 1995, 60.9% of all households were led by married couples, but that plunged to only 49.7% in 2005. The failure of Welfare Reform to make any progress toward these goals is a second major reason to ask Presidential candidates (and those running for the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives) if they would support a 5% reduction of TANF funds to any state that does not reform its divorce laws.
3) Document the Cost of Divorce and Non-Marriage
On April 15, the day
America pays its taxes, the Institute for American Values held a press conference to announce the cost of divorce and non-marriage to American taxpayers. The report estimated a national cost to taxpayers – not counting the personal cost of private attorneys and anguish – of $112 billion. The report outlined those costs of welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, and state government costs. The data was provided on a state-by-state basis, which will be very helpful in persuading state legislators that the cost of divorce is high enough that strategies for slashing those costs would be prudent. In fact, in the view of Marriage Savers, the estimated costs are too low. For example, the $40 billion the Earned Income Tax Credit was not included, though at least three-fourths of it subsidizes single parents; and only 7% of the costs of prisons, police and courts were included though 70% of those in prison are from fatherless homes. However, the Institute’s report can be used with state legislators, and will make it easier to argue the case with state legislators to Reform Divorce. The study notes that even a 1% drop in the divorce rate would save taxpayers $1.1 billion.
4) Mobilize the Churches
The Catholic Church, with 65 million members, is so opposed to divorce that the church does not allow divorced people to receive communion, unless they have received a church annulment. Nor will it re-marry divorced people, unless they have received an annulment declaring that their original marriage was invalid. While 50,000 annulments are granted annually (a minor scandal), that figure compares with about 200,000 Catholic marriages a year. And Catholics have the lowest divorce rate of any denomination, about 25% according to a 2004 Barna Poll, substantially below the 39% divorce rate of Protestants. Therefore, the Catholic Church, or more precisely, the Catholic bishops in a particular state, might be persuaded to support Mutual Consent and Shared Parenting. However, it will not be easy, because Catholics oppose all divorce, and it may be difficult to get a bishop to testify in favor of a bill that would permit some divorces. Marriage Savers believes, however, that the fact our answers would reduce the divorce rate, perhaps cutting it in half in any state that adopted these reforms – should be persuasive with Catholic prelates. Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger of
IN, took the lead to create a Community Marriage Policy there in 1998. He has written a letter to Marriage Savers thanking us because his divorce rate fell 20%, but also said, “We are particularly proud to report that the number of marriages has risen” from 1,143 from 1997-2003 to an average of 1,324 in 2004-5. That is a 16% increase in the marriage rate. What makes this especially important is that in the same time, the
U.S. marriage rate fell by 9%.” He now serves on the National Board of Advisors of Marriage Savers, and can be asked to help reach out to other Catholic bishops.
Evangelicals: A second group of clergy and lay leaders likely to support divorce reform are evangelicals who are Southern Baptists or are in smaller denominations affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals. In a 2008 Barna Poll, deeply committed evangelicals divorce at a relatively low 26%, about the same as a 28% figure for Catholics in that survey. In most cities where Marriage Savers has helped the clergy create 223 Community Marriage Policies, evangelicals have been at the forefront, organizing not only other evangelicals but Catholics, Mainline Protestants and minority clergy. Richard Cizik, V.P. of NAE, serves on the Marriage Savers Board, and asked Mike McManus to draft a resolution that NAE might endorse to reform divorce law. Here are the opening words of the Declaration on Marriage that he drafted: “The NAE’s “Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” urges that we `work to nurture family life and protect children.’ First, we believe that marriage is a union only between a man and a woman. Secondly, we identified `easy divorce’ as a social evil to be challenged, and committed ourselves to foster `good public policies on marriage and divorce law.’ Certainly `No Fault Divorce’ is such an evil that cries out for reform. It actually encourages divorce, because one person can file for divorce when one’s spouse wants to save the marriage. What was entered into by two people can be ended by one unilaterally, which happens in 80% of cases. This is a profound moral issue.
America has the world’s highest divorce rate. Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” Yet this nation has put asunder 42 million marriages since 1970, shattering 40 million children “ While NAE has not yet accepted the proposal to replace No Fault with Mutual Consent, and Sole Custody with Shared Parenting, McManus has been invited to meet with a committee of the board to consider the proposals and how best to advance them. Action seems likely in the next few months, and can be leveraged to bring aboard the Catholic bishops.
The Reform Divorce Website
Frankly, this ReformDivorce.org sebsite is designed to motivate activists in this battle to reform divorce. We have written the website so that it provides the information and rationale to energize these constituencies. We are doing so in cooperation with John Crouch, Director of Americans for Divorce Reform, who has developed a much older website, DivorceReform.org which provides a wealth of data and studies many of which have not even been summarized here. We welcome any suggestions on how to strengthen our proposed strategy, or volunteers who would like to lead their charge in their state or region. Please write to us or call Mike McManus 301 469-5873.
For more information about Marriage Savers, see www.marriagesavers.org.
Mike & Harriet McManus, Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, 2008, Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, New York, London, Toronto, Sidney.
Ibid, Living Together, p. 67.
Larry Bumpass, James Swett, & Andrew Cherlin, “The Role of Cohabitation in Declining Rates of Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 53 (November 1991 (913-27).
The World Almanac 2008, “Nonmarital Childbearing in the U.S. 1970-2004, National Center for Health Statistics, which also provided 2006 data in a phone interview.
U.S. Population, by Age, Sex and Households,” 2005,
U.S. Census Bureau.
Benjamin Scafidi, “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First Ever Estimates for the Nation and all Fifty States,” The Institute for American Values,” Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Georgia Family Council, Families Northwest., 2008.
“The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States,” a paper by the Institute for American Values, Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Georgia Family Council, Families Northwest, April 15, 2008.
Gerald A. Gettelfinger, Bishop of Evansville, June 8, 2006, letter to Marriage Savers.
Frank Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin, Divided Families (Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 22.