Cost of Family Breakdown

Mississippi’s budget woes would not be nearly as severe if marriage still had the prominence it once did in the state, according to Forest Thigpen, president of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy (MCPP). His comments were based on a study released today in Washington, DC, that estimates the cost of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing on federal, state, and local budgets. The landmark study, entitled “The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing,” is the first scholarly, peer-reviewed study to ever estimate the cost of “family fragmentation” to federal, state, and local governments.

The total cost to taxpayers in the United States is $112 billion per year, or more than $1 trillion over a decade.

The direct effect on Mississippi’s state and local governments is $605 million, according to the study. But Thigpen says that doesn’t include Mississippi taxpayers’ share of the $70 billion cost to the federal government. “Based on Mississippi’s share of federal taxes, the total cost to Mississippi taxpayers is more than $925 million per year. And even that is an exceptionally low estimate.”

In order to base the estimates in the study on well-established and widely-accepted research measures, the study’s author only established the minimum cost to governments, according to the study. As a result, the study focused only on the effect that marriage has on lifting people out of poverty. It did not include other benefits of marriage, which have been documented but are more difficult to quantify in terms of their effect on government programs.

The study was commissioned by four policy and research groups—the Institute for American Values, the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, Families Northwest, and the Georgia Family Council. It was directed by Benjamin Scafidi, Ph.D., economics professor at Georgia College & State University.
Scafidi said, “This report shows that public concern about the decline of marriage need not be based only on ‘moral’ concerns, but that reducing these costs of family fragmentation is a legitimate concern of policymakers and legislators, as well as community reformers and faith communities.”

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 596,000 individuals are living in poverty in Mississippi, with 221,000 of them being children. Roughly 40,000, or 18 percent, of those children are in a married-couple family; about 8,000, or 3.6% of children who live in poverty, are in a family headed by an unmarried man; and more than three-fourths (78.2%) are in families headed by an unmarried female.

“This study documents for the first time, that divorce and unwed childbearing—besides being bad for children—are also costing taxpayers a ton of money,” said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. “Even a small improvement in the health of marriage in America would result in enormous savings to taxpayers,” he continued. “For example, a 1 percent reduction in rates of unmarried childbearing would save taxpayers $1.1 billion.”

Thigpen said divorce and out-of-wedlock births take their toll on the people, especially the children, who suffer the consequences of bad decisions. “We care about the people who are suffering from bad experiences or bad choices in their relationships. But there are some people in our society who will only pay attention to the magnitude of this problem when they see the cost in dollars, and that’s one of the benefits of this study,” Thigpen said.

“These numbers reinforce the fact that government programs fail miserably in leading people out of poverty. After forty years of anti-poverty programs, why are more than a half-million Mississippians still living in poverty?” Thigpen said. “It is in part because we have a created a system that subsidizes bad decisions, we have created a culture that doesn’t discourage those bad decisions, and we have created a sense of entitlement among the recipients of those subsidies, which leads politicians to subsidize their behavior even more. That cycle has to be broken, and restoration of marriage is essential to breaking that cycle.”

Thigpen said, “We are at a point in Mississippi where more than half the babies born in our state are born out of wedlock, and where there are more people leaving marriage each year than entering into it for the first time. If we don’t reverse those trends and restore marriage to its proper role in our state, we face cultural and financial costs that will be difficult, if not impossible, to bear.”

Thigpen said he’s not suggesting that all government programs be suddenly ended, but he said the solution starts in the churches. “Marriage is intended to be a picture of the relationship God wants to have with us. If churches, which presumably embrace that vision of marriage, don’t act more intentionally to train and support strong marriages, we cannot expect the general population to embrace marriage, and the cycle of dependency will continue unabated.”