“Economic issues are not separate from psychological issues – a fact that is rarely talked about. After divorce, the drop in income carries other losses that cannot be measured in dollars and cents, like being forced to move away from friends in a familiar neighborhood to less expensive housing, like being exposed to the violence and chaos of a bad neighborhood, like being sent to a more crowded school with overwhelmed teachers.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 164)
From the moment a couple separates, each parent instantly becomes poorer. They lose the benefits of a collective income and the ability to pool resources, which lowers living costs. Studies generally find an average income decline of 50% for mother/child pairs who were living in a non-poor family prior to the divorce. (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994) Single parenting is associated with higher rates of poverty and a lower socioeconomic status (SES), and after a divorce, many families struggle financially. It’s no accident that marriage originally began as an economic institution.
Having a low SES, meanwhile, is its own risk factor for kids. It means more family stress as parents strain to try and make ends meet. It can mean more run down and dangerous neighborhoods, with more at-risk peers for a child to associate with who engage in more at-risk behaviors. As Wallerstein & company explain, less money often translates into “the loss of important supports that the custodial parent could no longer afford, like private school, music lessons, special medical care, and tutoring when needed.” (ibid, p. 128) It frequently translates into more moves, since those on the lower end of the SES scale tend to have less stability in their housing. It may mean parents having to take on more work or work longer hours.
All of these things add up, so much so that children from families on the low end of the SES scale tend to experience 35% more daily stressors in their lives compared to more well-to-do peers. (Atter, Guerra & Tolan, 1994) And if you read our section on stress, you know this is a problem. One recent study found that the stress-induced brain damage kids from an impoverished SES endure was comparable to that seen among children who endure a stroke. (Toppo, 12-8-2008) So when a couple splits up and faces the financial burdens of parenting on their own, this factor alone can catapult children into a high-risk category.
The potential mediators:
- High-income earners will struggle less with this, and may not experience any problems at all after divorce.
- The amount of financial support a custodial parent receives from others is a key factor. Those with extended families who are actively involved and who can help take on some of the burden of raising a child, even in small ways such as paying for clothes or gifts or enrichment activities, will be better off.
- Child support helps, but as we’ll discuss later, it seldom comes close to making up for the added expenses and lost support from the other parent. Those who receive regular child support payments will be better off, but this doesn’t completely offset the new financial burden.
- Even when a single parent is thrust into poverty following a divorce, this does not mean that all is doomed. Just because children in poverty show substantial detriments overall does not mean every child living in a low SES is destined to be damaged because of it. It’s not the lack of money itself that damages children; it’s the fact that this lack of money translates into other problems. There are ways to provide an enriching environment that do not cost a thing, and skillful parenting along with other mediators can mitigate these things so that a child is no worse off.
- A parent with a low personal income can typically avoid most of these problems if they have plenty of outside social support from friends and family.