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Always A Risk Of Divorce

The effect of divorce laws on the well-being of children
Copyright: drx 

To what extent are children suffering when their parents get divorced? That question is not so easy to answer, mainly because of the complexity of this topic. Researchers Steffen Reinhold, Thorsten Kneip and Gerrit Bauer focused on a much more detailed question instead: How are the effects of unilateral divorce laws affecting the well-being of children?

There is a large body of literature showing a negative association between parental divorce and children’s outcomes such as well-being and their level of education. First, usually one parent leaves the household and spends less time with the child, but the staying parent may also have less time. Both will lead to a reduction of parental time for the children. Second, divorces are usually associated with economic hardship resulting in lower investments in children’s human capital.

And there is also some literature showing that liberalised divorce laws could have an effect on that. Reinhold, Kneip and Bauer addressed this question by employing a difference-in-differences approach and controlling for childhood family structure and socioeconomic status. For this purpose, they used recently available data from SHARELIFE for 11 Western European countries.


Unilateral divorce laws

Divorce laws in Europe have undergone several changes in the last decades. First, divorce became a legal act. Then, no fault grounds for divorces were introduced. The last step has been a shift from laws that require mutual consent, to unilateral divorce laws.

Previous research has shown adverse effects of growing up under unilateral divorce laws on long-term outcomes of children. But it remains an open question as to whether these effects of early childhood conditions arise due to divorce laws which make parental separation more likely, or whether unilateral divorce laws also affect children in intact marriages by changing patterns of intra-household bargaining. Do liberalised divorce laws change the bargaining process within households and thus the investment into children’s human capital or both?


Bargaining due to liberalised laws?

If the introduction of unilateral divorce has increased the probability of divorce, women in intact marriages would have an increased incentive to invest more in their own labour market experience. They have to work full-time to maintain their outside options as marriage has lost part of its insurance value. This can put an additional time burden on mothers and potentially lead to lower investments in children. Also, there can be an effect on the health behavior of children, and on their educational attainment.


A change of interactions

According to the researchers’ estimates, unilateral divorce law has no effect on an adult’s completed education, self-rated health or depressive syndromes. However, they found that there are marked effects on the probability of ever getting married and having kids, and it is more likely these children will become overweight.

This leads to the conclusion that the effect of unilateral divorce laws on children’s outcomes is mainly driven by their effects on intra-household bargaining in existing marriages. But the results are not driven by the effect on unilateral divorce laws on the probability of parental separation.

Finally, Reinhold et al. found adverse effects of growing up under unilateral divorce laws on the well-being of children. They concluded that unilateral divorce laws affect children by changing family bargaining in intact marriages.


This PopDigest is also available in French, Spanish and German.

This Population Digest has been published with financial support from the Progress Programme of the European Union in the framework of the project “Supporting a Partnership for Enhancing Europe’s Capacity to Tackle Demo­graphic and Societal Change”.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Isabel Robles