Study: Unilateral divorce laws caused temporary spike in violent crime

January 23, 2012

U.S. states that enacted unilateral divorce laws saw substantial increases in violent crime in the years following the reform, according to research in the Journal of Labor Economics. But the ill-effects of the new laws appear to be largely temporary.

The research found an average 9 percent increase in after a state enacted a unilateral divorce law, which allows one spouse to end a marriage without the consent of the other. The increase in crime was mainly confined to the first two decades after the reform and was mostly attributable to individuals who were young children at the time the reform was enacted.

The link between unilateral reform and crime appears to be and worsening in income distribution, say the study's authors, Julio Cáceres-Delpiano (Universidad Carlos III, Madrid) and Eugenio Giolito (Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Santiago, Chile).

"Mothers in adopting states were more likely to become the head of the household [after the reform] and to fall below the poverty line, especially less educated ones," they write. "Therefore, our results suggest that a potential channel linking unilateral reform with the increase in crime might have been the worsening in economic conditions of mothers and the increase in income inequality as unintended consequences of the reform."

The researchers used FBI crime reports from 1965 to 1996 for states that enacted unilateral reform during that period.

Unilateral divorce has been the subject of much study since a series of states started allowing it in the 1970s. Some researchers suggested that the reform caused a substantial and permanent uptick in divorce rates. But more recent research has shown divorce rates jumped in the first 10 years after reform, but the effects dissipated after that.

Cáceres-Delpiano's and Giolito's results bolster the notion that the effects of reform on the number of divorces—and the social ills that accompany divorce—were short-term, mainly affecting "families 'trapped' in that transition" to unilateral divorce, the researchers say.

How might the temporary nature of the effects be explained? Some researchers suggest that people changed their approach to marriage once the laws were on the books. "Scholars suggest that the reform has caused changes in the selection into and out of , increasing the average match quality of new and surviving marriages," Cáceres-Delpiano and Giolito write.

Explore further: Effects of welfare reform are mixed for the poor

More information: Julio Cáceres-Delpiano, Eugenio Giolito, "The Impact of Unilateral Divorce on Crime." Journal of Labor Ecnomics 30:1 (January 2012).

Related Stories

Effects of welfare reform are mixed for the poor

June 9, 2010

( -- The economic status of children of single mothers who have gone off welfare and found jobs has improved slightly, but many poor families are worse off since the 1996 welfare reform, reports a study.

First-time divorce rate tied to education, race

November 3, 2011

New research from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR) at Bowling Green State University shows there is substantial variation in the first-time divorce rate when it is broken down by race and education. ...

Recommended for you

Science: Public interest high, literacy stable

October 28, 2016

While public interest in science continues to grow, the level of U.S. scientific literacy remains largely unchanged, according to a survey by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Experts uncover hidden layers of Jesus' tomb site

October 27, 2016

In the innermost chamber of the site said to be the tomb of Jesus, a restoration team has peeled away a marble layer for the first time in centuries in an effort to reach what it believes is the original rock surface where ...

Important ancient papyrus seized from looters in Israel

October 27, 2016

(—Eitan Klein, a representative of the Israel Antiquities Authority, has announced that an important papyrus document dated to 2,700 years ago has been seized from a group of Palestinian looters who reportedly ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.