SALT LAKE CITY — Laws that make divorce fast and easy are good for society, according to an article published by the U.S. Census Bureau. But that contradicts previous findings on the long-term effects of divorce on children.

The report, published Dec. 18, said there are “positive ripple effects” when countries make it easy to dissolve a marriage, and that such laws reduce rates of suicide and domestic abuse, and increase marriage rates.

“Also, laws that guarantee generous financial compensation upon divorce have been shown to increase first births among highly educated women. Knowing that they will be compensated for lost wages reduces the risk of leaving the labor market to have children,” wrote Misty L. Heggeness, an economist and senior adviser in the Research and Methodology Directorate at the Census Bureau.

But scholarship on the topic is not unanimous, and some question why the Census Bureau, which exists to collect information about America and its citizens, is weighing in on a historically contentious topic.

“I am simply astonished that the U.S. Census Bureau is taking a clear stand on one side of a family policy issue about which there is legitimate debate among family scholars,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a sociology professor at the University of Virginia.

Heggeness used her own forthcoming research to argue that reduced wait times and laws giving economic power to homemakers improved social outcomes in Chile. Because divorce only became legal there in 2004, the country is a “living laboratory” for research.

Here’s why she says laws that make it easier to divorce are better for all members of a family, and what other marriage experts are saying about the Census Bureau article.

‘America Counts’

The report, entitled “The Up Side of Divorce?,” is part of “America Counts,” a collection of articles published in conjunction with the 2020 census. Most are directly related to data collected by the Census Bureau, such as “By 2030, All baby boomers will be 65 or older” and “School enrollment: college down, graduate school up.”

The report on divorce, however, does not stem from Census Bureau data, but from diverse research supporting laws that make it easier to get a divorce. The author writes that such laws result in other social changes, such as more women working outside of the home, and a reduction in the number of children born to couples.

Researchers face challenges studying divorce and its effects, Heggeness said, because they can’t prove that outcomes are caused by the divorce and not other factors. But Chile’s legalization of divorce in 2004 made the country an ideal setting for ongoing research, especially since the laws there were written to favor homemakers, she wrote.

For example, in Chile, a stay-at-home mother whose marriage breaks up is entitled to compensation for her years of work at home, comparable to what she would have made in the marketplace in her chosen profession.

“This meant that a woman who studied law, married her college sweetheart, had kids and got divorced five years later was entitled to five years of back wages from her spouse equivalent to what a lawyer would have made during that time,” Heggeness wrote.

The law also established child support for children ages 21 and younger, or 28 and younger if the child is enrolled in college.

But wait times for divorcing Chilean couples are not equal, as each township in the country sets its own timetables. This enabled Heggeness and other researchers to examine disparities in wait times in conjunction with school enrollment.

“When family laws shift property rights and provide payments directly to women upon divorce, wives have been shown to invest more in quality schooling for their children and in schooling in general. Their leisure time increases and they start working more, decreasing the time they spend on household chores such as cleaning and cooking,” Heggeness wrote.

And laws that enable a speedy divorce can help a person — male or female — exit an abusive marriage by reducing associated costs, she said. They also reduce the “opportunity costs” — or the trade-offs of getting divorced versus staying married — by making the threat of divorce more credible, she said, which could, in some cases, ultimately save the marriage.

“Credibility, in this case, is measured by the time distance between when a homemaker threatens divorce and when the divorce can be actualized. The shorter the distance is, the more credible the threat,” Heggeness wrote in her study, to be published in March 2020 in the Journal of Development Economics.

‘Less-than-ideal’

The report acknowledges that divorce can be difficult for all the parties involved and lead to “less than ideal well-being outcomes.” But Heggeness says that laws making divorce easier to obtain do not result in more divorces, as some sociologists once feared.

Stephanie Coontz, a marriage historian and director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, agreed, noting that the divorce rate in the U.S. is the lowest it has been in 40 years.

According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green University, 22.6 out of every 1,000 marriages ended in divorce in 1979. The rate has declined nearly 30% since then, falling to 15.7 divorces for every 1,000 marriages in 2018. (There are, however, considerable differences by state: Arkansas’s rate is 25.9%; North Dakota’s, 8.7%. Utah is in the middle, at 16.1%).

Coontz also confirmed that another “upside” of easily obtainable divorce is that it reduces rates of domestic abuse and suicide, as Heggeness wrote.

The adoption of no-fault divorce is also associated with a decline in wives killing their husbands, Coontz said. But, she added, this doesn’t mean that such laws are protective of marriage.

“What they do is give the person who is most discontented with the marriage extra bargaining power, whereas laws that make divorce harder give more bargaining power to the person who wants the marriage to remain as it is,” Coontz said.

Sometimes the availability of an easy divorce does save a marriage; for example, if the discontented person can pressure the other partner into negotiating or changing. But these laws also reduce the options of the person who wants the marriage to continue, and preclude delays that might make people reconsider getting divorced.

“On the other hand, there is little evidence that long waiting periods actually do make people rethink,” Coontz said.

No single impact

In 2004, Jonathan Gruber, an economist and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used 40 years of census data to examine the outcomes for children who had grown up in states where divorce was permitted without the consent of both partners.

Gruber wrote then that in states with unilateral divorce, the children grew into adults who were “less well-educated, have lower family incomes, marry earlier but separate more often, and have higher odds of adult suicide.” In an email to the Deseret News, he said the Census Bureau’s article, which links to his study, does not change his position.

“That is literally the opposite of the conclusion that I draw in my study. I find that easing divorce laws is bad for child outcomes,” Gruber said.

Wilcox, at the University of Virginia, said he was disappointed that the Census Bureau would publish “an astonishingly one-sided report” and that doing so “unnecessarily politicizes the Census Bureau’s important work.”

“The research on divorce law does not begin to point in one direction, as this report would falsely lead the casual reader to conclude,” Wilcox said.

In a statement, the Census Bureau said that it doesn’t take a stand on subjects or issues, but “rather provides data-driven research results that policy makers may use to inform their policymaking decisions.”

Coontz said that while most people assume divorce is uniformly bad, “it’s important for them to know that the impact of divorce is more variable than they may realize.”

For example, she said, one study found that aggressiveness and bullying increased in 18% of children after their parents divorced, but the same study showed a decrease in aggressiveness and bullying in 14%, and no change in the rest of the children.

Similarly, another study found that 24% of children whose parents had divorced had declines in reading scores, while 19% had increases and the rest saw no change.

Heggeness argues that divorce’s impact on children can be lessened, or even made positive, when governments enact divorce laws that favor women, and especially homemakers, since research shows that women spend more on children’s education and clothing than men do.

“Legal changes to marriage and divorce laws shifting power towards family members more likely to invest in household public goods can have a positive effect on outcomes like educational attainment. This, in turn, can advance economic development,” Heggeness wrote.