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The divorce revolution: the unexpected social and economic consequences for women and children in America.

The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America

by Lenore J. Weitzman. New York: The Free Press, 1985, 504 pp., $19.95.

This book is must reading for all those who are interested in the problems of women and children because it describes how what was originally intended to be a liberating reform of divorce law has become instead an engine for the victimization and impoverishment of women and children on a vast scale.

The Divorce Revolution

California pioneered in eliminating fault as the basis for divorce in 1970, and within a decade after this, all but two states followed suit. Before this the traditional role of the courts was to award alimony to the "innocent party." This was changed, and the no-fault law provided two major basis for alimony awards: the wife's employability and the duration of the marriage. Instead of the presumption that the wife was dependent, the new law assumed she was independent and employable. The new focus was on helping the divorcee to acquire new skills or to update old ones so that she could become self-sufficient. The only exception was the older marriage, where a woman might be incapable of self-support or be too old to be retrained.

Weitzman stresses the fact that most of the leaders of this reform movement had the best of intentions. They believed they were ending traumatic and acrimonious litigation over fault and the award of alimony as a moral reward or punishment for past conduct. They believed they were recognizing the growing equality of the sexes.

The Unexpected Consequences

The bulk of the book is devoted to a description of the unexpected consequences of this change in the divorce laws. The underlying research was supported by a variety of agencies and spread over a ten-year period in California. It included systematic random samples of court records, interviews with members of the matrimonial bar, interviews with superior court judges and commissioners who hear family law cases, and interviews with divorced men and women.

Here are some examples of what Weitzman found: about five out of six divorced women were not awarded any alimony in 1978, and over half of the women in longer marriages received none. Only 13 percent of the women with preschool children received spousal support in 1977.

Typically, the husband retained two thirds of his income after divorce for himself, while the wife and children (usually a total of three people) received only one third. A similar unequal division occurred when the community property was "equally divided": the husband, one person, got one half, and the wife and children, usually three persons, got one half. The main form of community property in most marriages, however, the earning capacity of the husband, is not deemed to be property and is kept entirely by the husband alone. This, notes Weitzman trenchantly, "is like promising to divide the family jewels equally, but allowing the husband to keep the diamonds."

Child support awards were typically less than half of the costs of raising children and less than the welfare levels of amounts of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. About one year after divorce, the divorced men had their standard of living increase by 42 percent, while the divorced women suffered a 73 percent decline in theirs. Some of the most heart-rending declines occurred among middle-class housewives with longer marriages.

All of this is bad enough, but the picture is even more scandalous because less than half of the noncustodial fathers comply with court awards. Current estimates on noncompliance with child support orders range from 60 to 80 percent. So we have a picture of inadequate awards made to a small fraction of these women and children, and for this small fraction, the courts often do not enforce payment. The result is a major tragedy. More than half of the poor families in the United States are headed by single mothers. Almost 14 percent of the divorced women had to go on welfare in the first year after divorce. All of us, as taxpayers, are therefore subsidizing the new divorce system, irresponsible and delinquent husbands, and the gross failure of the courts to enforce their own orders.

What can we say to Margaret Heckler, Secretary of the Department of Health and Community Services, quoted by Weitzman as follows?

I . . . feel very strongly the destitution, the desperation, and the simple human suffering of women and children who were not receiving child support payments legally owed them. Frankly, it offends my conscience because I believe that a parent's first responsibility is to reasonably provide for the upbringing and welfare of his or her children. To deny that responsibility is a cowardly act.

Fifteen million children live in homes without their fathers. Only 35 percent of these households receive child support and nearly one third live in poverty. Children deserve to be supported by both of their parents. For the sake of America's children, we must put an end to what has become a national disgrace.

It might be noted parenthetically that total enforcement of payments would hardly solve the problem since few get awards and most awards are inadequate. Enforcement is therefore only a small part of the problem.

We have created a two-tier society, with an underclass of impoverished women and children at the bottom of the economic ladder. Lenore Weitzman attributes this primarily to the divorce revolution.

I believe it would be more accurate to say that the change in the divorce laws accelerated a general trend which had been evident for some time. In the history of our country, it has been profitable to use certain groups as a source of relatively low-paid labor-- blacks, immigrant groups, Hispanics, etc. Women are the latest group to be so used and are now one of the largest of these low-wage groups. Women earn, on the average, about 30 percent less than men. In the case of women, this historical process has certainly been accelerated enormously by the change in the divorce laws and the manner in which they have been applied in practice. The divorce revolution has clearly contributed to the growth in what has been called the "feminization of poverty." As a matter of fact, that phrase is no longer quite adequate. We need a new phrase to include the impoverishment of the children of these divorced women as well.

Since the no-fault divorce reform was primarily the work of lawyers and judges, we must now confront these unexpected results.

What Can We Do Now to Correct this Deplorable Situation?

Weitzman's recommendations flow logically and inexorably from her findings, and are in line with the recommendations of the other writers we have cited. First and foremost is her plea for equality of treatment. The children particularly should have more support and there should be effective enforcement of court awards. If there is to be no fault in divorce, there should be no punishment or rewards. Post-divorce income should be shared equitably so that both households have the same standard of living. This is now the basic position of the National Organization for Women, and of other women's organizations.1

All of what Weitzman calls "career assets"--earning capacity, goodwill value of a business or profession, medical and hospital insurance, and other benefits and entitlements--should be considered to be community property and divided equitably.

The family home should be awarded to the custodial spouse, or at the very least, its sale should be delayed. The forced sale of the home in order to divide the community property immediately after divorce throws an impossible burden on the woman and children.

There must be special provisions to care for the divorced wives in older marriages. While they are supposed to receive special consideration under the existing law, Weitzman finds that in practice they are not getting such consideration.

She illustrates how backward and appalling the condition is in our country by comparing us to Sweden, where women and children get 90 percent of their predivorce standard of living. The state pays delinquent alimony and child support and takes upon itself the problem of collection of the delinquent amounts.

These recommendations are so well documented by the facts that they have been widely adopted by many of the women's organizations. The book has therefore become not only a reliable source of facts, but a guide to political action as well.

The Significance of Weitzman's Findings

When I read this book immediately after its publication, I did something I had never done before. I wrote a letter to the author congratulating her enthusiastically. As an economist involved in divorce and child-support issues, I had known that something terrible was happening to women and children, but I did not know the extent and depth of the damage. This book put everything together and confirmed my fears. It is an outstanding example of fine academic scholarship applied to a problem of profound and immediate importance. It is a credit to Stanford University where Weitzman was an associate professor of sociology. She is currently teaching at Harvard. She deserves a Hobel Prize for this achievement.

Her book is impressive by almost any standard. There are very few books which depict a human condition so powerfully that it galvanizes broad masses into action to correct the condition. This is such a book. Staid women's organizations have suddenly become more militant not only because their members have suffered the consequences of the divorce revolution, but because this book has revealed the depth and scope of the degradation so clearly. Even more unusual is the timeliness of the book. Most academic studies focus on the past. This one focuses on what is happening now, and was published in time so that the book itself has become a weapon in the struggle against this debasement. It is significant that one of the very first national organizations in this country to come out for the impeachment of Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal, and for the defeat of his nomination of Bork to the Supreme Court, was the National Organization for Women.

There is a growing awareness of Weitzman's findings among other writers in this and associated fields.2 For example, her basic conclusion, that to treat persons as legal equals when they are economically unequal makes a mockery of justice, and is a facade for worsening the inequality.

Weitzman's study also corroborates the major conclusion of Robert N. Bellah and a team of sociologists in their book, Habits of the Heart. Bellah and his associates believe that self-interest has become a "cancerous growth."3 Weitzman feels that the change in our divorce laws and the manner in which they have been implemented is a part of this cancerous growth in self-interest, self-gratification, and selfishness, and that it represents a further step toward unbridled and irresponsible individualism at the expense of community interest and the family.

These writers are appalled by what this growing stress on self-interest may mean to the institution of marriage in our country and the consequences to our children. If the rules and practices in ending the marriage contract are so blatantly exploitative and unfair to the women and children, what does this say about the nature of the marriage contract itself in the future, of the marriage commitment? Someone must be responsible. If our society as a matter of policy relieves individual men of these responsibilities, it must bear them itself. As a result of the dominance of neoconservative ideology at the present time, however, it seems that everyone is dodging responsibility while this tragedy deepends and spreads.

Women and Children Last4

When a ship goes down, the rule is "women and children first." A divorce is like a ship going down. How civilized can we claim to be when, in our divorce laws and practices, we change this to "women and children last"? Have we abandoned all moral and religious teachings and traditions?

1 National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund, Child Support Guidelines, 1987, p. 3.

2. The reader who wants to view this picture in a larger context should see Sylvia Ann Hewlett, A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1986, especially pp. 51-139. Also see notes that follow.

3. Bellah, Robert N. et al, Habits of the Heart, University of California Press, 1985.

4. Ruth Sidel entitles her recent book Women and Children Last: The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America. New York: Viking Press, 1986. Since I thought of the same title before I was aware of her book, I feel I can use it in this review. It is an example of two people independently arriving at the same conclusion.
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Author:Eden, Philip
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1987
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