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Effects of divorce not uniform across population

Posted on 12 June 2013

Divorce can infringe the life chances of children from high income and highly educated parents more measurably than those from less well-off families, according to new research.

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When studying the effects of divorce on criteria such as educational attainment, labour market participation and wellbeing, the evidence suggests divorce more greatly impacts those families who would appear to have the resources to compensate.

EUI Professor Fabrizio Bernardi is co-director of a project that studies the effects of family forms and dynamics on children’s short- and long-term welfare. “We are particularly interested in how ‘penalties’ associated to different dynamics are not uniform across the population, but effects different groups more than others.”

“This penalty [on degree attainment] is larger for those with two highly educated parents, the penalty goes up to 12 per cent [less likely] – compared to 3 per cent of low educated.”

While tertiary education levels remain higher for children from highly educated families, irrespective of divorce, the effect of separation has a greater impact on an individual’s chances compared to students from lower educated families.

Timing is also important when measuring the impact of divorce on education. The closer divorce occurs to critical turning points in a child’s educational trajectory, the greater the effect. Such events vary in frequency and age bracket depending on educational system.

In stratified systems early academic success can help mitigate the effects of divorce. “[If] a child managed to get on the good track, somehow he or she is sheltered,” says Bernardi, “If the divorce takes place just before the channelling of students, the impact is greater than if it takes place later on.”

Bernardi and his colleagues are keen to investigate the mechanisms behind these phenomena, as well as the implications for policy such as the role of pre-school attendance.

The project will also investigate how different family dynamics post-divorce, such as shared custody, effects life chances. Shared custody arrangements are becoming more prevalent across Europe, but have not been extensively studied.

“We do have some idea of whether and when it is beneficial, but we want to deepen that understanding,” says Juho Härköen, the project’s co-director, “In cases where the parents are still involved in a lot of conflict after the separation, these joint custody arrangements might not be such a great idea, for example.”

The findings were presented at the workshop for the ‘Families and Societies - Changing families and sustainable societies’ research project, a collaborative effort bringing together professors and researchers from 25 universities across Europe and is part of the research being conducted by the Comparative Life Course and Inequality Research Centre (CLIC) here at the EUI.

(Text by Mark Briggs)