The Surprising truth about Fathers, Children, and Divorce
Sanford L. Braver, Ph.D.
What if one of the most significant pieces of social data of our time was flatly wrong, the result of a glaring arithmetic error?
In 1985, a book was published that immediately had a profound effect on how the general public viewed the economic impact divorce had on women versus men, a book that, in the end came to be recognized as having been based on flawed analyses, even according to its author. Based on her comprehensive ten-year California study, the book, The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America 1 by Harvard2 sociologist Lenore Weitzman, Ph.D., proclaimed that after a divorce, women and children suffer on average a 73 percent drop in their standard of living. Fathers, on the other hand, were actually found to benefit economically from the termination of their marriage, sinve whatever they retained went to support only themselves. According to Weitzman, the average divorced man’s standard of living increases by 42 percent. Weitzman’s famous graph showing this disparity is reproduced in Chart 4.1.
If ever anyone needed any evidence to fuel their outrage against divorced fathers, to contribute to their bad divorced dad beliefs, or to inform them what is wrong with the divorce system and why so many men are moved to abandon their families, this was what they were waiting for Social scientists, divorce professionals, some feminist writers, policymakers, and the media jumped on this news with all the zeal of a dog with a fresh bone On the book jacket, the past President of the American Sociological Association called it “social science at its best” ; a divorce judge was quoted as saying it would be “required reading for all lawyers and judges in family law” and feminists Jessie Bernard and Betty Friedan gushed respectively “The book is a winner” and “I hope that Weitzman s compelling analysis and proposals will stimulate new legal thinking about the realities of equity and equality in divorce “An AP newswire story later printed widely in major newspapers around the country called Weitzman s findings “jaw dropping [and] widely influential in the movement to change America s divorce and child support laws ”
It is probably impossible to overestimate how influential Weitzman s 73 percent figure was. Her data for example are widely cited in legislative debates and she herself has testified before Congress. A search of databases found that over 75 newspaper and magazine stories have since cited Weitzman s numbers4.
Even this figure understates enormously the extent to which her findings have invaded popular culture Like a virus out of control Weitzman s results have surfaced in an unknown number of reports in which her figures are erroneously attributed to other sources For example in the January 24, 1993 edition of The Arizona Republic newspaper an article stated ” that observation
is underscored by US Census figures which indicate that an average ex husband s income increases 2 percent on average after a divorce while an ex wife s income declines 72 percent ”
When looking at academic sources however we are able to get a more accurate count of how widespread Weitzman s influence was There were citations in 348 social science articles 250 law review articles and 2 appeals cases 5 Her figures were characterized as “ranking among the most cited demographic statistics of the 8os” Furthermore the U S Supreme Court cited Weitzman s figures in at least one of its cases and even President Clinton cited the statistic in his 1996 budget request
As well known and as influential as Lenore Weitzman s findings were to policy makers and the general public the professional research community was skeptical when the findings were first published In particular researchers myself included wondered how her results could depart so much from what others had found findings with far less public attention Chart 4.2 shows a graph of the economic decline other researchers have found for divorced women juxtaposed against Weitzman s findings despite the fact that Weitzman s findings disagreed with everyone else’s only her results were widely quoted by the press and politicians.
Two researchers who had conducted one of the related research studies depicted in Chart 4.2 were economists Greg Duncan and Saul Hoffman Ph.D. s noted they had found only a 30 percent average decline in divorced women s standard of living.
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