The Long-Term Effects of the Divorce Revolution: Health, Wealth, and Labor Supply

Kristin Mammen

WP#2008-22

Abstract

The effects of divorce on individuals and on society as a whole has been widely debated in public discussion of American life. The dialogue was sparked by the dramatic rise in the number of U.S. divorces which began in the 1960s: Figure 1 illustrates that the divorce rate doubled from 10.6 to 20.3 divorces per 1,000 married women between 1965 and 1975, and continued to rise until 1981. Scholars have also debated the implications of the ‘Divorce Revolution’ of this time period: the liberalization of divorce laws in a large number of states to a unilateral regime, which made divorce easier by requiring the consent of only one spouse to dissolve a marriage (e.g., Friedberg 1998, Weitzman 1995). Some policymakers, 14 social scientists, and advocacy groups have argued that this sweeping policy change was an important factor in a general decline of the American family (e.g., Kirkwood 1996, Parkman 1993). Gruber (2004) found that children exposed to the unilateral divorce laws have poorer outcomes in young adulthood. On the other hand, the easing of divorce laws made it easier for people to leave toxic marriages, and arguably increased the bargaining power of abused partners within marriages; Stevenson and Wolfers (2006) find large declines in domestic violence in states that adopted unilateral divorce. This paper contributes to the evaluation of the change in divorce laws by examining a less studied area: the long-term effects of this policy change on the well-being of men and women who were young adults when the laws were changing…