In arguments about the fairness of family law, most of the time the argument centers on anecdotes, or, at best, around partial, cherry-picked statistics, so I decided to look into what the numbers say as a whole about divorce, unmarried parents, custodial parents, non-custodial parents, and their socioeconomic situation.
So. For starters, most studies done on divorce show that women end up economically worse off, while men end up economically better off after a divorce. Now, this data skews a bit because the further into the past you go, the stronger the effect is, and most of the studies I was able to find were old. The most frequently reappearing study is one done in the 70′s (here is a re-evaluation of said study, from 1995), and most other ones are longitudinal studies written up in the 90′s (if someone has more recent data on this, I’d be grateful), or are studies about Europe. The last paper I link to cites non-divorce-related discrimination as the source of this impoverishment of women. This discrimination, while diminished from the 70′s and 80′s, still exists, and so a base difference in divorce outcomes very likely still exists*. The question then would be whether family court decisions are making up or even inverting the effect of this discrimination and thus lessening or reversing the impact divorce has on the people involved. And since this post is specifically about parents, whether and how divorcees with children are affected.
A study from Washington (the state, not the city) shows how the economic situations differ for joint households vs. single-parent households, and how the economic situations of parents change after a divorce. In most cases, everybody is worse off uncoupled, but the mother is worse off than the father regardless of whether she’s the custodial parent or not. Custodial mothers experience a smaller reduction than non-custodial mothers (42% vs. 48%), but custodial fathers experience a greater reduction than non-custodial fathers (14% vs. 11%). The situation looks somewhat different in Title IV-D cases(pdf link!) in which the father is the custodial parent, where the noncustodial mothers actually end up with an increase of economic well-being from a shared household, while the custodial fathers end up with a large reduction (31% for divorcees, and a drastic 85% for all cases). Despite what MRA’s claim though, custodial mothers are not better off than non-custodial fathers in any of the scenarios, both in absolute and in relative terms.
What those statistics seem to tell us that child custody does not impoverish fathers and enrich mothers, and that the only situation in which men end up worse off than women are custodial fathers in IV-D cases (but the divorced custodial fathers are still better off than the divorced custodial mothers, so I’d REALLY like to know how large the cohort of unmarried single fathers in IV-D cases is, and what causes the DRASTIC departure from all the other statistics). But the demographic most bemoaned by MRA’s, the non-custodial fathers, end up on average getting the best economic deal out of living in a separate household (meaning the least reduction of economic well-being), be it because of divorce or being unmarried, only second (and only in relative terms) to the much smaller cohort of non-custodial IV-D mothers.
The other thing that MRA’s often argue is that the Family Courts are biased because mothers are more likely to get custody than fathers, and more likely to get sole custody than have a shared custody. Apparently this was true in the 90′s, when 75% of all cases resulted in sole custody for the mother(in 40% of which the father didn’t even have visitation rights). That number however includes the 1/3 of all fathers who wanted the mother to have sole custody. When custody had to be decided by outside sources (trial or mediation), sole custody for the mother only happened 44% of the time. Still more than joint custody or sole custody to the father, but evidently it was possible for fathers to gain at least some access, if they wanted it. 70% of fathers still reported not having as much access to their children as they wanted, though (interestingly, no one compiled that statistic for women, even though 25%-56% of them might theoretically feel the same).
So, yes, at least in the 90′s there was discrimination against fathers in custody agreements. Prejudiced attitudes of fathers and mothers against the need for the father to be involved seem to have figured very heavily into this, and probably this also reflected the attitudes of the courts. How this has changed over the last 15-20 years I don’t know, but neither complete parity nor a lack of change is likely (the former because social change doesn’t happen that quickly, and the latter because attitudes towards fathers’ involvement in parenting have been changing significantly). One thing that has been happening is an increasing demand for joint custody, and some states even made joint custody mandatory, at least temporarily. That would improve the situation of the non-custodial parent in terms of access to the child, but it is not at all clear that it improves the situation of the child. Certainly, in cases where a couple chooses joint custody (or for that matter, intra-marriage co-parenting, since a lot of studies simply focus of father-involvement in raising children), the children are better off; but comparing that to cases in which joint custody wasn’t voluntarily chosen and then mandating it is a bit like saying that because children of married couples are better off than children of divorced couples, we should ban divorce. In both cases, the conflict and antisocial behavior most likely responsible for the problems won’t disappear just by removing the most obvious indicator of problems. In fact, it can make things worse.
From my personal perspective, then, joint custody mustn’t be mandatory, but it should be the default assumption of courts unless evidence is present that another arrangement is better for the child (i.e. evidence of harmful and antisocial behavior of one parent, as well as evidence for high-conflict between the parents).
In conclusion, there does seem to be some discrimination against fathers in family-court, but it’s not at all what MRA’s claim it is. Non-custodial fathers come out of a separation a lot better off than anyone else, even if they have to pay child-support. The discrimination that IS present seems to be focused on the good-oldfashioned sexist assumption that men pay and women do everything else, which means fathers who want more involvement in their children’s lives won’t necessarily get it. However, forced joint custody, while certainly better taking into account the rights of the fathers, might well be trampling on the rights of the children, and is therefore not necessarily the best solution to the problem, either. Getting away from patriarchal attitudes and patriarchal child-care assumptions would probably make it more possible to see to the welfare of a child on an individual basis.
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* originally, I’d thought to point out that this might have changed during the current recession, which resulted in a greater loss of traditionally male jobs than traditionally female jobs, but while this is true, the losses between 2007 and now were from 88% to 81% for men, and from 73% to 69% for women, and I’m not going to just assume that all these non-working women are trophy wives and voluntary SAHM’s, though I’m sure some are. And apparently, women are starting to catch up, and unlike men, they’re not just becoming unemployed, they’re leaving the labor force altogether.