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How to Slash Divorce Rates in Half, Saving Tens of Billions

Michael J. McManus

President, Marriage Savers, Co-Founder and Co-Chair of Marriage Savers, and writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column, “Ethics & Religion.”

A 2007 survey by the Barna Poll suggests that “the biggest issue of them all may be one that leaders do not seem to be focused upon: the well-being of America’s children” Some 82% of Americans said it was “absolutely necessary” to improve “the overall care and resources devoted to children.” That was exactly the topic I addressed in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial at a “Family Preservation Rally” on August 19, 2007..

I asked, “What single factor most undermines the lives of children? The choice by millions of their parents not to marry or to divorce. Since 1970, 35 million children have been born out-of-wedlock and 40 million more witnessed their parents’ divorce. Some 1.5 million innocent children are born annually to unwed parents. That’s nearly two-fifths of all babies. Often dad disappears. Another million children a year see their parents divorce. Children often lose regular access to both parents, especially their dads.

The law actually encourages divorce, because one person can file for divorce when their spouse wants to save the marriage. What was entered into by two people can be ended by one unilaterally. This law is called “No Fault Divorce,” because a spouse wanting divorce does not have to identify a major fault, such as adultery or abuse. No Fault Divorce should be called Unilateral Divorce, because 80 percent of divorces are unwanted by one spouse. Courts have taken away the children of millions of parents. A father can lose his family, his home, and have to pay high child support. Fifty million Americans in broken homes live under court orders.

This is a profound moral issue. Yet church leaders were either silent or ineffectual in fighting No Fault when it swept America in the 1970's. Nor have they attempted to reform the law in the 30 years since. The result: America has the world’s highest divorce rate.

Half of marriages end in divorce. There has been one divorce for every two marriages every year since 1970. Many are needless, and are later regretted.  Children of divorce or non-marriage are three times as likely as those from intact parents to be expelled from school or become pregnant as teenagers. They are five times as apt to grow up in poverty or to commit suicide. They are also 12-22 times as likely to be incarcerated, according to the Heritage Foundation.

The cost of broken families to taxpayers is staggering. – $185 billion a year, according to the Heritage Foundation. More than half (53 percent) of single parents bringing up children had a failed marriage. The rest came from non-marriages, such as cohabitation. To help them, the government provides welfare payments, food stamps, housing subsidies, an Earned Income Tax Credit, day care subsidies, etc. However, those billions of subsidies do not equal the value to a child of growing up with Mom and Dad It is time to change history. We must speak out and give voice to the voiceless – America’s children who depend on us.

· It is time to restore America’s families.

· It is time to reform No Fault Divorce

· It is time to help unwed couples with kids really consider marriage.

· It is time to help those in struggling marriages to save them.

· It is time to give our children their birthright – a mother and father who will love them.

· It is time to slash the $150 billion cost of non-marriage and divorce

The Church, the one institution we expect to be concerned about morality and about the family, has remained mute about the disintegration of marriage in America. Therefore, I call upon America’s bishops and elected religious leaders to take the lead. Jesus is quoted in Mark, Luke and Matthew saying, `Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not put asunder.’ America has put asunder 42 million marriages since 1970, affecting 40 million kids. No wonder Malachi wrote, `I hate divorce says the Lord God of Israel (Mal. 2:16).’”

How can America’s clergy change things? Church leaders must demand that the Presidential candidates consider three reforms that will not cost the Federal Government a single penny. In fact, these reforms could save $40 billion of the cost of failed marriages.

Virtually all Presidential candidates say they support “Family Values.” What does that mean? It is time to ask those running for America’s highest office whether they support reforms that could slash America’s divorce rate in half: These three reforms would put flesh on the rhetorical bones of the phrase “Family Values.”

FIRST REFORM: Replace No Fault Divorce with Mutual Consent Divorce.

A Presidential candidate ought to consider saying, "What was entered into by two people should not be allowed to end unless both husband and wife agree, if they have children. If neither alleges a major fault like adultery or abuse, divorce should only be granted by Mutual Consent.

“The States have failed to enact this reform because the divorce industry has a stranglehold on state legislatures. In the 1950s and early 1960s, southern state legislatures refused to grant civil rights to blacks. Therefore Federal Civil Rights Laws were proposed by President Lyndon Johnson and passed by Congress. Similarly, I will seek a Federal law to protect children and families. For hundreds of years, millions of parents did work out their marital differences for the sake of their kids. More will do so in the future, if Congress replaces No Fault Divorce with Mutual Consent Divorce. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees “due process of law.” Yet No Fault Divorce, granted by every state, defies “due process” by always granting a divorce, when asked for by one spouse. Family Courts are Kangaroo Courts. A mother or father should not be allowed to unilaterally divorce the child’s other parent. Husbands and wives who pledged to stick together “till death do us part’ should live their vows pledged on the altar of God.

“Why? Children need both a married mother and father. What was entered into by two people, should not be exited by one spouse acting alone, against the interest of their own children. Government has an interest in the future of children, and they are best protected with the love only a married mother and father can offer,” a Presidential candidate might say.

“I believe Mutual Consent could slash divorce rates by 30 percent, saving 3 million marriages from divorce over the next decade.”

SECOND REFORM: Shared Parenting To Replace Sole Custody

“If there is a divorce, the law should mandate shared parenting or joint custody. States with the most joint custody enjoyed the largest drop of divorce in the 1990's,” a Presidential candidate could state, citing evidence: “The states which approved the strongest presumption of joint custody are Montana, Kansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Rhode Island, and Alaska. Five of those states also had the largest decline in divorce rates in the 1990’s: Montana, Kansas, Connecticut, Idaho and Alaska.” In a typical shared parenting arrangement, the mother has the children during the week, and the father, from Friday night through Sunday – not two days every two weeks.

Why? David Levy of the Children's Rights Council, says, `If a parent knows that he or she will have to interact with the child's other parent while the child is growing up, there is less incentive to divorce.’

“Therefore, I urge Congress to enact the proposed `Family Preservation and Reconciliation Act’ which would mandate shared parenting. The same law should also mandate Mutual Consent.

“I believe Shared Parenting will push down divorce rates by another 20%. More parents would be more responsible mothers and fathers. If Mutual Consent and Shared Parenting are enacted as a package, I predict America’s divorce rate will plunge 50%,” a candidate might say.

“These reforms would save a half million marriages a year from the divorce and its shattering impact on innocent children. These two reforms would also save $40 billion of federal and state tax dollars now subsidizing divorce, with no real benefit to children. More important, millions of children would do better in school and would be more likely to grow into responsible adults.

THIRD REFORM: Set Aside 2% - 5% of Welfare Surplus for Marriage.

A Presidential candidate might note that when Welfare Reform was passed in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton, the feds guaranteed a $16 billion federal welfare payment, even if welfare rolls fell: “Welfare rolls did plunge 61%. That was a good thing and it reduced poverty in America. However, it also gives states and counties an annual $9.8 billion welfare surplus. Some of the surplus is well spent, subsidizing day care, for example. Where does the rest of the money go? Who knows?

“Therefore, I will call on Congress to mandate that just 2% to 5% of that surplus be set aside to strengthen marriage. That would be about $200 million to $500 million to fund a statewide competition for local grants to prepare couples better for marriage, enrich exist marriages and save troubled ones.

“Ohio passed a 1% set aside for marriage that ear marked $12 million last year to strengthen marriage through competitive local grants. Texas passed a similar law this year. Every state should be mandated by federal law to follow their example,” a Presidential candidate might note.

“The Bush Administration is to be commended for earmarking $100 million a year for the first grants to cities to promote marriage in 2006. Can local initiatives reduce divorce rates?

“Some 10,000 pastors and priests created 220 Community Marriage Policies to reduce divorce rates since 1986 with the help of Marriage Savers. Community Marriage Policies mobilized tens of thousands of volunteer Mentor Couples who helped enough couples to reduce county-wide divorce rates by 17.5% over seven years in the first 114 cities with Community Marriage Policies, according to an independent study by the Institute for Research and Evaluation. That was nearly double the 9.4% divorce decline of counties without a CMP. That was a modest impact, but enough to save 30,000 to 50,000 marriages though 2001, the study reported. With six more years and nearly twice as many Community Marriage Policies now in place, perhaps 100,000 divorces have been avoided,” a Presidential candidate might say.

The cohabitation rate also fell in counties with Community Marriage Policies by 13.4% from 1990-2000 while it rose in carefully-matched control counties by 19.2%. Thus, cohabitation rates in counties with Community Marriage Policies ended the decade of the 1990s one-third lower than those without clergy cooperation (13.4% + 19.2% = 33.6%).

Also, marriage rates are rising in many CMP cities. The number of marriages in Modesto, California, the first city which adopted a Community Marriage Policy in 1986 as a result of a speech I made -- rose from 1,300 marriages that year to 2,500 in 2005. By contrast, the U.S. marriage rate has fallen by 50% since 1970. Evansville, IN marriages remained flat from 1998-2003, but jumped 16% in 2004-6.

These reforms were achieved without federal funding by some of America’s churches who trained Mentor Couples to help other couples prepare for a lifelong marriage, enrich existing ones, restore troubled one, reconcile the separated, and enable stepfamilies to be successful.

However, only 40 of the 220 Community Marriage Policies have staff or any funding.

A Presidential candidate might say, “What if an additional $200 million to $500 million were made available for competition for start-up grants of $100,000 each? All of America’s 3,000 counties could hire a small staff to organize the volunteers in the nation’s 350,000 churches, synagogues and mosques into Community Marriage Policies that could reduce divorce rates by one- fifth over the next decade – based on Marriage Savers’ experience. It would also push down cohabitation by a third while increasing marriage rates. Furthermore, these results can be achieved at no new federal cost. States would simply set aside 3 percent of their nearly $10 billion surplus.

“In fact I think this package of reforms could save taxpayers $40 billion a year. More important, America would be giving a new birth of hope to America’s families and to its children,” a Presidential candidate might say.

Will this vision happen? Not unless the American people and the nation’s religious leaders decide it is important enough to demand that the Presidential candidates of both parties support steps to slash America’s divorce rate. I urge readers to speak to your pastor, priest or rabbi and to political leaders in your party, to demand a better future for our children, who we all love.

Remember that “God hates divorce.”

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