DIVORCE AND SEPARATION take a significant economic toll on American children, pushing many below the poverty line and increasing dependency on welfare programs, according to a Census Bureau report to be released today.
The average income of the single-parent families created by divorce or separation falls by 37 percent within four months of the breakup, the study found, in almost all cases reflecting the financial impact of the father's departure from the family unit.
"This study is more dramatic confirmation of how far the standard of living falls after breakups," said Prof. Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and author of a book on divided families. "It's a national scandal."
At the same time, the study's authors noted that economic problems tend to predate divorce and separation, suggesting that financial stress may be as much a cause as a result of the family breakup.
The study, "Daily Disruption and Economic Hardship: The Short-Run Picture for Children," tracked the effects of divorce and separation on 200 children across the country from October 1983 through May 1986.
The Census Bureau determined that the average income of families in which the children had been separated from their fathers was 17 percent less than the average income of stable, two-parent families.
While other studies have shown similar disparities, "what is surprising is that welfare dependency doubled and only 44 percent of children received child support" from their absent fathers, said Cherlin.
Cherlin noted that fully one-fourth of fathers do not make the child support payments mandated by court orders and that another quarter make only partial payment.
The study found that fathers more often were working in families that remained together than in families that later split up. Only 67 percent of fathers in the surveyed families were employed, it said, compared to 83 percent in stable, two-parent families.
It found that the proportion of children living in poverty increased from 19 percent at the time of divorce to 36 percent four months after the family breakup, causing many families to turn to social welfare programs for assistance.
Of the children surveyed, 9 percent were in families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children before the separation. The figure doubled to 18 percent during the four months following the breakup and increased to 22 percent one year later.
Receipt of food stamps also increased, from 10 percent before the family separation to 27 percent a year later, the study said.
Divorce and separation also force many mothers to enter the work force at the same time that they are adapting to the new family unit, according to the report.
In the families tracked by the study, the percentage of mothers holding full-time jobs rose from 33 percent before the separation to 41 percent after the split. Including part-time employment, the proportion of working mothers jumped from 57 percent before the breakup to 69 percent in the months after.
"The report shows that children do suffer economically from divorce," said Suzanne Bianchi, one of the authors of the report.