Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Educational Attainment of the Children of Divorce: Australia, 1940-90

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Educational Attainment of the Children of Divorce: Australia, 1940-90

Article excerpt

Introduction

Divorce rose dramatically throughout the Western world in the 1960s and 1970s and Australia was no exception. In earlier years, divorce was rare and difficult in Australia, with a lifetime risk of divorce at about 10 percent of marriages up to the late 1960s. But easy, no-fault divorce was established by the Family Law Act in 1976. That precipitated a spike in divorce, followed by stabilization with the risk of divorce at about 40 percent for the marriages of the late 1970s, and a very gradual upward drift since then to a projected 43 percent for couples married in 1993 (Bracher et al., 1993; Carmichael and McDonald, 1986; Webster, 1995). (1) Few Australian children born early in the 20th century had to cope with divorce: only 4 percent. This rose slowly, reaching 6 percent in the 1950s. But then for children born in the 1960s -- who were teenagers in the 1970s around the time of the divorce reform -- there was a dramatic change: 9 percent grew up with divorced parents (see also Bracher et al., 1993). This pattern continues, so that now more than twice as many children must cope with divorce as in earlier generations. (2)

Some observers welcomed this change, arguing that it would free people from unhappy marriages, thereby improving the sum of human happiness. Others argued pessimistically that easy divorce would eventually lead to the collapse of family life, to the detriment of all, especially the children. The impact of divorce and remarriage on children's progress in school has, in particular, become a major policy issue. Evidence, mainly from the USA, is not unequivocal but mostly suggests that divorce has a small but statistically significant cost to the child's education and that the mother's remarriage probably does not compensate (Amato, 1997; Axinn et al., 1997; Duncan et al., 1972; Entwistle and Alexander, 1996; Krein and Beller, 1988; McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994). Research looking at family composition reports more variable results, with single parents (mainly divorcees and some unwed mothers in recent years, but in earlier years mainly widows and widowers) having less success in getting their children educated according to some studies but not others (Astone and McLanahan, 1991; Biblarz and Raftery, 1993; Dronkers, 1994; but see Biblarz and Raftery, 1999). (3)

For Australia, direct, comparable evidence has not, to our knowledge, been presented to date. Nor is it clear whether we should expect to find the US situation mirrored in Australia, because the US differs from other developed societies in important ways. On the one hand, the USA is unusually rich, with higher wages and less unemployment than most other developed countries (World Bank, 1992). This should make it easier for a single parent to support and educate her family. Moreover, since colonial times, US divorce rates have been high compared to equally developed countries, so divorce is presumably more institutionalized (Cherlin, 1978) and its adverse consequences better controlled. But, on the other hand, the US also has unusually high educational levels, so education is more costly in total, and educational careers exposed to the risk of disruption by divorce for a longer period. Educational careers in Australia are closer to the European pattern: generally briefer, more selective, and often vocationally oriented (Blossfeld and Shavit, 1993). Moreover, the US also has less extensive government subsidies for higher education and less generous social support and welfare services than many nations (around 60 percent of the usual European level [Gwartney et al., 1995: 277-9; Castles, 1993]). In terms of redistribution -- an issue highly relevant to the prosperity of children being raised by divorced mothers -- the United States has a `liberal' welfare state regime, in contrast to Australia's better targeted `radical' welfare state (Castles and Mitchell, 1992; Mitchell, 1991). The latter should make it easier for single parents to support and educate their children. …

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