What follows are excerpts from two articles referring to the work of Lenore Weitzman, a former Stanford University sociologist widely credited with sparking radical change in spousal and child support guidelines and requirements throughout the United States. But in no state did she have more impact than the state in which she conducted her study, California. The divorce revolution was almost two decades old and California seemed to lead the way for the nation.
A little history. In 1969 no fault divorce went on the books and blame in a failed marriage became irrelevant. In the mid 80's Weitzman set out to determine if no fault divorce was having an adverse and discriminatory economic impact on women and children. A noble cause indeed. But what followed was a social disaster in its own right.
During the mid 80's some of the more liberal state legislatures were swallowed up by a whirlwind of reactionary policy making aimed at grabbing headlines and votes for liberals fighting hard to take back their country from the menace, Ronald Reagan. "No fault divorce" was a Governor Reagan policy. No fault divorce was being labeled by feminists as anti-woman. When Weitzman started her research study, the country was in love with their conservative leader, now President Ronald Reagan. Liberals everywhere would have stood on their heads to get headlines and right the wrongs of the "great conservative one."
So what? It was in this political and social climate, Lenore Weitzman published her book, "The Divorce Revolution." The year was 1985. Her book had great impact on the family court system. Many family court judges have her book on their shelves. Her claims that thousands of women and children were being subjected to financial hardship had to be corrected by legislation and by the courts. She claimed that women and children suffered a nearly 73% decline in their financial status. While at the same time the males of divorce, according to her findings, realized a 42% increase in their standard of living. In a 1990 San Diego Union piece decrying the wave of policy change that was about to sweep the divorce crazed nation, a fellow academic took editorial potshots at Weitzman's work and influence on policy.
According to Researcher David Kirp of UC Berkeley, Weitzman was "Relying on impressive-sounding empirical research, she claimed that 'thousands of women are unjustly subjected to hardship.' And mothers were losing out in custody battles."
Kirp continued on to describe how liberal politicians jumped on the bandwagon. "Again, California acted to right the balance. A California State Task Force on Family Equity made Weitzman's book its chief text -Weitzman herself was a task force member- and the basis for its recommendation that the deck be re-stacked in favor of the dependent (usually female) spouse." Reform in the form of increased child support guidelines were recommended and later adopted. (1992) The crime. According to Kirp, "the reformers never inquired into Weitzman's calculations, instead treating her analysis as gospel." But later, more careful studies point out Weitzman's claims about women and children losing out are mostly wrong. Moreover, measured in the economic terms of the time (circa 1990) life for women and children was slightly better, not worse.
Says Kirp, "Weitzman's most shocking finding was that 'divorced women and minor children in their households experience a 73 percent decline in their standard of living in the first year after divorce. Their former husbands experience a 42 percent rise in their standard of living.'"
Liberals and feminists were tripping over themselves getting this one into the press. From 1986 to 1996, a Nexis databank search found 175 newspaper and magazine stories citing Weitzman's numbers. There were also 348 citations of the numbers in social science articles, and 250 citations in law review articles. Not to mention 24 appeals and Supreme Court cases.
They were shocking statistics and they got shocking publicity. Then add the hysteria and creation of the "deadbeat dad." Every divorced father turned in to a deadbeat. Two social inequities that must be made right. But perhaps the most shocking revelation...Weitzman's research numbers were wrong. A simple, yet devastating error in math. Everyone bought the numbers, no one checked the math.
According to David Kirp, "Careful re-analysis of the evidence shows that, at worst, the real decline is 30 percent: nothing to cheer about, but not so scandalously unfair. More importantly, things even out financially over the years. While women go back to work or remarry, thus getting richer, many men remarry and so add to their obligations."
Eleven years after the "Divorce Revolution" was published and 6 years after the first of her colleagues questioned her findings, Weitzman finally admitted her figures were wrong. She blamed a weighting error and a computer mistake made by a Stanford University research assistant.
But, "I'm responsible - I reported it," Weitzman said.
What Now? These terribly sloppy errors turn out to be more than academic. They are public policy. Weitzman's admission of the error was in 1996. Three years later, nothing has changed.
Why does this matter? If you're paying child or spousal support in any state, and for sure California, chances are you're paying for Lenore Weitzman's mistake. The algebraic formula used in California factors in your ex wife's inaccurate 73% drop in standard of living.
Does the pendulum need to swing back to center? No one wants to see women and children of divorce live in poverty. Make no mistake, no politician is ever going to champion this cause. No politician is going to make a campaign promise to reduce support guidelines. But a case must be made for judges to have the leeway to review support on a more individual basis. The now proven inaccurate formula is based on a single mother living alone with a child(ren). It is also based on a single father living alone. Any variation of that changes her standard of living. Moreover, if legitimate research shows that financially the standard of living evens out as time passes, should there not be an opportunity for adjustment? The judicial should feel compelled to take an accurate look at the financial circumstances of each case and set support accordingly. No judge should go strictly by the book (or computer program) and assign support based on a formula alone. Especially, a formula that has been proven to be based on bad research and incorrect presumptions of poverty.
There is much more available on this and other subjects as they relate to divorced dads. One book in particular by Sanford Braver (Shattering the Myth of the Deadbeat Dad) debunks Lenore Weitzman in more detail. He also shoots holes in the many custody arrangements. There are also many spin off issues that need to be heard. For example, because we are deemed "deadbeats" most states automatically deduct your child support from your check. A garnishment. Try getting a home loan with those deductions. They count as debt, yet if you were not divorced no lender would ask you how much you paid for your kid's clothes. They don't even ask how many kids you have.
These issues need champions. They need effective, rhetoric free action. Read any divorced dad website and you see how many men are ranting and raving about inequities. Many have no money to fight for their rights. Many have no money to fight the most important fight, for their children. You can point to one flawed study, which became law and gospel in many states. Let's fight that.
"Clarifying California's Divorce Law" by David Kirp, professor of public affairs at University of California, Berkeley. San Diego Union Op/Ed, December 18,1990
"Divorce Researcher Admits Statistics Flawed; Data on Standard of Living Influenced Shift in Child Support Laws" By Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, May 17, 1996
Compiled and written by M. Workman. Divorced father of two. Still fighting for custody and not behind on any support.