Divorce's Economic Toll

EXPERTS on the family often discuss divorce in terms of its emotional impact on children. But evidence continues to mount that the economic consequences for children can also be harsh and long-lasting. The latest sobering evidence comes from the Census Bureau. A study that followed 20,000 households for 32 months reveals that the family income of children declined by nearly 40 percent within four months of their parents' separation. The proportion of these children living in poverty almost doubled during that brief four-month period, from 19 percent to 36 percent. The number of children in families receiving welfare also doubled during the initial four-month period, going from 9 percent to 18 percent.

Figures on child support tell the story. Only 44 percent of children received child support from their absent father in the four months following the separation - a percentage that remained unchanged a year later.

The failure of noncustodial parents to share in the cost of child-rearing is a problem of shameful proportions, depriving American children of billions of dollars in support. In an attempt to increase collections and reduce acrimony, the federal government now requires states to adopt uniform child-support guidelines for judges to consider in awarding payments. In addition, child-support enforcers around the country are using a variety of methods - withholding wages, extraditing delinquent parents from other states, intercepting tax refunds, seizing state lottery winnings, placing liens on property - to force delinquent parents to pay.

These measures can help prevent children from becoming impoverished as a result of divorce. But other solutions, such as allowing absent parents access to their children through fair visitation arrangements, are also necessary to reduce the anger or frustration that leads warring parents to use their children as economic pawns.

Although courts can sever parents' marital ties, nothing can break the link between parent and child. That bond requires both fathers and mothers, regardless of their current marital status, to be responsible for their offspring.

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