Is divorce bad for the children?

Rereading Tim Harford’s chapter three, this question runs through my mind.  Numerous studies correlate divorce with subpar outcomes for the children, though Justin Wolfers once told me he was not convinced these studies had proved a causal relationship.  Perhaps divorce-prone families have other dysfunctionalities which correlate with the kids having later problems in life and that the divorce is not causing those problems.

My wondering is more fundamental.  Does a marginal (expected) increase in divorce increase or decrease the number of children who end up being born?  On one hand the prospect of divorce may cause some people to limit the number of children they have.  On the other hand, there is a surplus of women on the marriage market.  Divorce, followed by male remarriage or at least siring, tends to increase the total number of children.  I suspect this latter effect predominates.  If divorce is unexpected, this latter effect almost certainly predominates.

If divorce causes more children to be brought into the world, it is hard for me to believe that divorce is bad for "the children" overall.  It’s better to be born, at least for most kids.  You might argue that "children existing now" have a special moral privilege over "children in the abstract."  Sometimes, yes (we don’t value human life at replacement cost), but if we are asking "will divorce be good for children thirty years from now" currently they are all "children in the abstract."

I believe this defense of divorce is consistent with Tim’s overall take.  Of course a person who fears overpopulation might see this as additional reason to oppose divorce or make it more costly.


Wait . . . Aren't you giving positive ontological status to yet-to-be-conceived children? Those 'children in the abstract' aren't anything. They don't have any sort of existence; so it seems wrong to claim that 'it's better to be born [than not].' There is no alternative to being born since there's nothing [a non-child] to which an alternative can refer.

High divorce rates raises the risk adjusted cost of having children for women since unmarried women with children often fall into poverty. Since women can control their fertility, I think is more likely that marginal increase in divorce decrease the number of births.

It's better to be born, at least for most kids.

Tyler, where's the evidence for this?

Bryan Caplan made a similar claim on his blog several months ago. His only support for the claim was that most people never choose to take their lives. That's true, but it doesn't seem very relevant.

It's better to be born, at least for most kids.
This blog disagrees, as does this one. Both of them are engaged in a discussion at my blog here.

a world with five billion people is better than world with five people (as indeed you must agree),

i don't see why he must agree. if a 80 year old person with no family connections or friends younger than he is probably wouldn't care what the world is like in 30 years.

I asked the same question in Harford's comments after he posted the excerpts. Cowen's answer is bolstered, at least anecdotally for me from my own experience and that of people I've known. I don't have the stats to back it up, but it seems to me that 2nd marriages have a much greater chance of lasting and the children that result get more stable, Ozzie and Harriet style upbringings. From what I know of the Daddy-O I haven't seen in 20+, he did all right by the 2nd litter. This seems to be pretty common.
So not only are there more kiddos, these kiddos-in-the-abstract have a pretty good shot. And even the abandoned ones tend to get their bearings eventually, though they may flail around for a decade or two first (and wonder how they parlayed high-g into librarianship and wonder just how much they hurt their livers during all the flailing).
My personal suspicion is that divorces cause real harm, but less than bad marriages. And I tip the hat to my step father, Cowen, and all the others that raise the Dodo eggs--though I would never do it myself in a million years.

"It's better to be born, at least for most kids."
I use the same argument when discussing animal rights. More animals are born and living (relatively) healthy (albeit short) lives because of the meat industry.

I think one ought to specify what is to be maximized for this being a relevant discussion. Total utility for "the children" (which, undoutedly grows with each new child ) or average/median utility (which doesn't necessarily grow with each birth.)

Dr Cowen,

Did you ever develop a serviceable theory on why we don't value human life at replacement cost?

While I'm sure you no longer have to worry about out of left field interview questions, it seems like just the kind of issue to which you may have given some thought.

My best guess, based on 2 minutes of intense contemplation, is that there is a kind of halo effect.

For obvious reasons I value my own life at very much more than replacement value. Likewise I value the lives of my family and friends very highly.

While this doesn't directly lead to the placement of a high value on the life of a random stranger, it isn't hard to imagine that a random stranger has friends and family who value him at much greater than replacement cost. If we believe that other people consider something to be valuable that belief affects our perception of its value.

It seems conceivable that our valuation of people that we are close to leads us to extrapolate higher than replacement cost valuations for people we have never even met. A non-economist might refer to this as empathy.

I think we do value life at replacement cost. Select at random your favorite loved one. What would be the cost to replace them? Just because the law doesn't recognize it this way doesn't mean it accounts for how we think and feel about it. I think the value the law places on pets killed by negligence is replacement value. If you have a pet, you will understand how ridiculous that is.

Many people do commit suicide. The ones who don't aren't necessarily not doing it totally because they feel they are better off. There is a component of a sense of commitment to those who care about you. I once heard a therapist say that if you get someone you suspect a suicide risk to promise to call you before they do it, they will almost always fulfill that promise. If you can get them to sign a contract it's even better. People have a tendency to fulfill their contracts and this same concept, in an informal way, keeps a lot of people from taking their lives. How many? Who could know?

"It's better to be born" Yes, for the ones who are born!

To take it back to Levitt and Dubner, mothers already make decisions about whether they can properly raise a child. Most make that decision before conception, and many afterwards. Of course, some are mistaken or never even think. So, to reason that the next marginal child is better off being born than not because all the ones who are born (based on the mother's decision that they are better off) begs the question. If mothers were perfect in their decision making and prioritize the well-being of the child, then the next child that would have been born is not better off, because the mother decided not to have the kid. Obviously, they aren't perfect and don't always prioritize the well-being of the child, but they tend in that direction.

All I can suggest to those of you who buy into the "better never to have been born" camp is to please get some therapy, prozac, quit the job you hate, or find out what you want to be doing that you aren't. Or emigrate from South Africa, for that matter.

There is a vast amount of good information about the way that mood and underlying outlook influences thought processes, and vice versa. You are a victim of that phenomenon, who has imbued these negative thought processes with the status of "rational beliefs".

Oh, I meant to say this also (before that other disturbing comment caught my mind):

If the parents get divorced because one of them was abusive (especially towards the child/ren, although any abuse they lived around could be damaging to them) then divorce is better for the child/ren.

Just wanted to throw that in there.

Matthew, what if an anti-natalist suggested that you take a drug that would cause you to agree with them? It takes the desirability of their position as a given. If you want to confront the arguments of anti-natalists, do so rather than simply asserting there must be something wrong with them, which can even more aptly be turned around on you given that the depressed (though I do not know if any anti-natalists actually are depressed) tend to have more accurate beliefs about everything except the probability of their own recovery from depression.

Eyeballing this list leads me to conclude that divorce rates are not a critical distinguishing factor in determining the rate of total fertility.

TFR by Country

The differences between Mali and Hong Kong are legion and the explanatory power of analyzing divorce should prove limited.

I think Tyler Cowen’s analysis is insightful, but limited in its perspective. He went one or two steps out in his analysis, but the chain runs much further. He writes, “On one hand the prospect of divorce may cause some people to limit the number of children they have.† I would wager that this limitation often comes in the form of abortion. Thus, it is not just a question of existence, but one of existence and destruction. A remarkable number of married couples choose to have an abortion, and in such cases as these, Mr. Cowen’s wording should be more precise: increased prospects for divorce may cause some couples to limit the number of children they raise. In these instances, male siring later merely replaces the child who would have been born had the pregnancy not been aborted. I do not know how large those numbers are, but my gut tells me that they must play some significant role in the statistics.
One reason that divorce may lead to more male siring later is that a new relationship probably resets a man’s “openness† to children. If the new wife wants a child, then a child she shall have. In modern America, we average 2.1 children per household, or so I have read somewhere. Thus, after the first two kids, most households cease being open to procreation. When a man and a woman split up and the man enters a new relationship, that openness may very well reset, especially if the couple is relatively young and the wife is childless. I think the average lifespan for a marriage which produces children is around 5-7 years. If most people are getting married later, say in their late 20’s or even their early 30’s, this means divorce probably happens around the age of 34-37. Cowen writes, “On the other hand, there is a surplus of women on the marriage market.† This surplus is probably not with women in their early 20’s who are at the height of their physical attractiveness and fertility, rather the surplus is likely with women who are in their 30’s and 40’s for whom the biological clock has almost run out. The demand for young women encompasses the desires of both young and older men, and thus I would argue that it has become a lot harder to woo an attractive younger lady than it was before the divorce rates skyrocketed. This vacuum of affection for older women leaves a glut of single older women who are desperately seeking relationships. The supply of men who are willing to partner with an older woman is, from my admittedly limited experience, much smaller than the supply of men willing to partner with a younger woman. Therefore we have a large supply of older women who suffer from a lack of demand, and thus we have a glut of older women who may have limited fertility.
The question is whether divorce produces more children as newly divorced men have reset their openness to life. Well, to be frank, there is only a relatively inelastic supply of young, available, fertile ladies. Whether these ladies choose to procreate with an older man or a younger man, the net number of children produced is likely to be about the same. However, I would argue that you would probably find that the net number produced is more for a younger couple than for a mixed-aged couple because an older man may be paying child support, alimony, and have tuition bills coming due. Thus, even if he has higher discretionary income, much of it may already be siphoned off to support his “first† family. Further, he may simply want to “enjoy† his younger wife and not have any more children for several years and thus advocate for a delay in child-bearing. Younger women tend to be more career-oriented, and thus his lobbying may be effectual. Further, if a man divorces from his family and marries a younger woman, then this woman, who may implicitly believe that she won her man primarily through age and looks, may have an incentive to delay child-bearing so as to keep her good looks and thus keep her man. Overall, the supply of fertile women is inelastic in the short-run. Thus a man who sires more children after divorce is probably NOT causing a net increase in the number of children in existence, but rather is swiping a few kids that a younger man would have sired in his stead.



"(though I do not know if any anti-natalists actually are depressed)"

Let's not be disingenuous. Anyone who believes that he or she would have been better off never being born is quite obviously seriously depressed. Here is a featured link from one of the antinatalists's blogs who is posting on your blog: Life Sucks.

Are you genuinely going to argue that the "ethical antinatalists" are not depressed?

Calling a model radical is a fallacious rejection of the argument. You've got to do more than just saying you don't like the model to explain why it's got problems.

You've got to do more than just saying you don't like the model to explain why it's got problems.


But note, why this is false. This is the case only for already existing people.

To clarify, while most existing people, under most states of existence, prefer existence to nonexistence, "people" who do not exist do not have a preference to exist or not exist. So we can't speak of their nonexistent interests as entities. "They" aren't off in some netherworld "waiting" to be born. "They" simply don't exist in any capacity.

What we can speak of and modify is the well-being of existing people, who do have interests. Hypothetical people are not people.

I take that back. Re-reading Cowen's post, I realize that was the main point of his post. Ignore my comment that too much is being made of his comment, Jason Malloy.

On the other hand, there is a surplus of women on the marriage market. Divorce, followed by male remarriage or at least siring, tends to increase the total number of children. I suspect this latter effect predominates.

On what grounds? How big is the surplus?

Jason Voorhees,

Now that I reflect longer on the abstract, I see that these factors I outlined earlier don't do much to make it surprising that children from 'divorced' homes don't do worse than children from 'almost divorced' homes because, of course, these factors endogenous to the parents will affect the children whether or not the parents divorce. However, it does make interesting that children from divorced homes don't do BETTER than children from 'almost divorced' homes. Presumably, if the 'dysfunction' causing negatives outcomes for children was a result of the dynamics of the marriage, then dissolving the marriage should help these children. However, this doesn't seem to be the case. So if this paper is showing us something real then perhaps we shouldn't say "Stay together for the sake of the children," but we also shouldn't say "We got divorced for the good of the children; we didn't want to model a bad relationship for them, etc."

All of this is with the caveat, of course, that academic achievement is hardly the only measure of well-being, and that many aspects of well-being are actually quite difficult to quantify.

Divorce, followed by male remarriage or at least siring, tends to increase the total number of children. I suspect this latter effect predominates. If divorce is unexpected, this latter effect almost certainly predominates.

This was certainly the case in my family. My dad had 7 kids with his first wife. Then he left her for a woman 10 years younger and had 4 more children. When they split he got with my mom (20 years younger) and had 2 final children. Had my father remained with his first wife, he might have had more children with her, but he definitely was done with his second wife after 4. When I was little I sincerely thought it was only a matter of time before he and my mom would split and he would have more children with a woman 30 years younger. But apparently he'd had enough of divorce, so that never happened.

Why was my dad so prolific? Because he wasn't a hands-on dad who shouldered much in the way of child-rearing responsibilities. So the marginal cost of each additional kid was pretty minimal. Of course, he never really accumulated any wealth, but that was never his primary concern.

years ago, when i was about to get my male tubes tied, the Doc told me i think about whether i would want kids in my 2nd marriage.
I got the tubes tied & stayed married, but people were explicitly considering this factor 30 yrs ago

Michael B.,

Where do you live? I think this is very relevant to your revealed vs. stated preferences. I'm curious to find out if you live in a suburban, urban, or highly rural area. . .

I agree completely with Antonio. Divorce is not what hurts the children it's the parents that hurt the children. I had a friend growing up whose parents divorces when she was in primary school and by the time she was in high school her father had remarried and had 2 more daughters. My friend has definitely been affected by the divorce and felt abandoned, replaced, and forgotten. To this day she remains a very depressed unhappy person. So it wasn't the divorce that hurt her it was her parents behavior and regard toward her. When her father had the other 2 daughters my friend really did feel replaced and unwanted. Another way to look at it I guess. There are many stories like this on this topic at Check it out
Just my two cents
Ann Marie

This suggests that some of the problems come before divorce

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