Everyone knows it's expensive to get a divorce: there are lawyers to pay, property to split, kids to fight over, and the occasional credit-sabotaging "revenge shopping sprees" before the credit cards are divided up again. Some people even go for the "deluxe divorce drama"-package by hiring private investigators to dig up dirt on a soon-to-be ex, which doesn't come cheap.
What everyone might not know, though, is that the monetary burden isn't shouldered just by the unhappy couples alone.
According to a recently released report, taxpayers foot a hefty portion of the divorce bill, too, and to the tune of more than $400 million a year in Oklahoma.
Actually, the report doesn't deal strictly with divorce, but with "non-marriage" in general: divorce and unwed childbearing.
While everyone likely agrees that divorce is an ugly thing, the report is spurring some lawmakers to, in the interest of mitigating the marriage-gone-bad costs to taxpayers, toy with the controversial idea of certain government interventions in what many regard as a strictly private affair.
"The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All 50 States" was released last week on Tax Day.
The report was the collaborative effort of four different policy and research groups: the Institute for American Values, the Institute for Marriage and Family Policy, the Georgia Family Council, and Families Northwest.
According to the report, the nation's high rates of divorce and unwed childbearing cost taxpayers at least $112 billion each year and more than $1 trillion in the past 10 years.
On the federal level, those costs amount to $70.1 billion a year, $33.3 billion at the state level--of which Oklahoma's share is $430 million annually--and $8.5 billion at the local level.
"This study documents for the first time that divorce and unwed childbearing--besides being bad for children--are also costing taxpayers a ton of money," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, in a written statement.
"Even a small improvement in the health of marriage in America would result in enormous savings to taxpayers," he added, stating for example that a one percent reduction in rates of "family fragmentation" would save taxpayers $1.1 billion.
Blankenhorn and his collaborators explained that the taxpayer costs examined in the report are "driven exclusively by increases in poverty."
In other words, the report did not take into account how stronger marriages might improve habits, mores and other behaviors that would "lead to reduced social problems or increased productivity," even though "vast amounts of other research certainly support this claim."
"These costs are due to increased taxpayer expenditures for anti-poverty, criminal justice and education programs, and through lower levels of taxes by individuals whose adult productivity has been negatively affected by increased childhood poverty caused by childhood fragmentation," said Ben Scafidi, PhD, an economics professor at Georgia College and State University and the principal investigator for the report.
The expenditures were calculated from foregone tax revenues in income taxes, FICA taxes, state and local taxes, as well as costs on the justice system, relevant costs for means tested government programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance; Food Stamps, Housing Assistance; Medicaid; State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP); Child Welfare programs; Women, Infants and Children (WIC) assistance, Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Head Start and School Lunch and Breakfast programs, the report states.
The report's architects pointed to its findings as an impetus for "marriage strengthening" government intervention.
"This report now provides the basis for a national consensus that strengthening marriage is a legitimate policy concern," Blankenhorn said.
"Prior research shows that marriage lifts single mothers out of poverty and therefore reduces the need for costly social benefits. This . . . 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," said Scafidi.
In Oklahoma, some legislators and policymakers are taking heed.
"This report demonstrates the need for state policies that encourage and support marriage. We literally can't afford to allow current trends to continue," said state Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa.
He and a handful of other lawmakers, state agency heads and "community reformers" announced the report at a press conference at the state Capitol last week.
"Every dollar the state loses because of family disintegration is a dollar taken away from schools, roads and public safety," McCullough added.
"As the study notes, public and private efforts to strengthen marriages--like the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative and Marriage Network Oklahoma--are a very cost-effective response to help both marriages and families and taxpayers at the same time," said Mike Jestes, executive director of the Oklahoma Family Policy Council.
The programs he mentioned offer voluntary marital and pre-marital counseling services and information, mostly through church and faith-based organizations, but Jestes said, "I believe we can do much more than we are presently doing, and it's very worthwhile."
As one way to do more, McCullough pointed to a proposal state Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, has made for the past few years, which is the creation of a "covenant marriage" license.
A "covenant marriage" license, McCullough explained, would require a couple to undergo premarital counseling, and would create more hurdles to divorce in the form of required counseling and reconciliation efforts.
He also pointed to a proposed 90-day "cooling off" period between a filing for divorce and the issuance of the final decree, which would be intended to give couples the opportunity to seek counseling or reconcile through some other means.
Of course, there are the inevitable objections from critics about government interfering in marriage, which the architects of the report apparently anticipated.
Among the "Frequently Asked Questions" listed on the Institute for American Values' website is, "Aren't marriage and family private matters?"
"Some feel that marriage and family are private matters in which government has no business," the Institute acknowledged.
"Unfortunately, as any divorced or single parent will tell you, government is already deeply involved in private lives of divorced and unwed parents. Family court judges can and do tell these parents when they can and cannot see their children and how much money they must pay in support of them. Judges often get involved in decisions such as where divorced and single parents send their children to school, what religion they are raised in, whether they will go to summer camp, and more," the site continues.
The FAQ answer offers, as "one of the surest ways to retain your freedom and privacy" is to get and remain married to the mother or father of one's child or children, and to "work together to sustain a healthy marriage."
"Therefore, one of the best things leaders can do to help protect Americans' private family lives is to help them form and sustain families in the first place," the site reads.
McCullough, though, told UTW that he doesn't "believe the state has the ability to 'solve' the problem of family fragmentation," and supports covenant marriage as an option rather than a mandate.
Also, he said, his preferred approach to dealing with Oklahoma's divorce and unwed childbearing rates isn't limited to the two proposals he mentioned in the press conference, but "is much more comprehensive."
"This report provides some leverage to start asking some tough questions," McCullough said.
He said most of the services currently provided by the state are for "clean up" after a family has already broken down, the costs of which are addressed in the study.
"What we can do is critically analyze various policies, including the ones our social service agencies are presently utilizing, to see if they may be better tuned to decrease the likelihood of family fragmentation," McCullough said.
Some of the "tough questions" he and other lawmakers are asking in that critical analysis, he said, are "Should we make a central policy the preservation of the nuclear family? Could we coordinate efforts between agencies? Could we try more effort on the 'front end' in early intervention efforts rather than on the 'back end' when we have lost the child or the family to delinquency, addiction or prison?"
"This is such a huge problem that it is really difficult to know where to start, but you have to start somewhere," McCullough added.
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