In Europe and Australia, Family Life Is Fraying

Divorce and Falling Tax Breaks Are Taking Their Toll

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LONDON, NOV. 3, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Last week, ZENIT looked at recent U.S. efforts to strengthen family life. Similar efforts elsewhere have not been as evident, perhaps because family life has not deteriorated to the same point that it has in the States. Yet, the lack of family-friendly policies is having its effects.



Divorce increases

In Italy, the latest study published by the national institute of statistics shows a sharp increase in divorces. For every 100 couples that marry, 23.5 will separate and 12.3 will go through a formal divorce proceeding, according to an Oct. 20 article in La Repubblica. The number of divorces has almost tripled in recent years.

The figures show that in 68.1% of the divorces, the wife takes the initiative. Regionally, the incidence of divorce is almost three times higher in the north of Italy than in the south. The marriages most likely to end in divorce are those between spouses who marry before age 24.

Another factor that seems to affect divorce is the number of children. Couples without kids are the most likely to divorce, while the least prone to do so are those with more than two children.

In England and Wales, meanwhile, divorces in 2000 fell to their lowest level in more than 20 years. According to a report Aug. 22 in the Telegraph newspaper, there were 141,135 divorces in 2000, compared with 144,556 in 1999 and 138,706 in 1979. The figures came from the Office for National Statistics.

The divorce rate per 1,000 of the married population dropped to its lowest since 1984. Last year, 12.7 people in every 1,000 of those married got a divorce, compared with 13 in 1999. It was 12 in 1984, and 11.2 in 1979.

While last year´s data is a positive sign, it doesn´t compare well with 3.1 divorces per 1,000 in the north of Italy and 1.3 divorces per 1,000 in the south.

Moreover, the drop in divorces in England and Wales might be due to a decline in marriage and the growing popularity of cohabitation.

Figures published last year showed that the number of couples getting married had fallen by around a quarter over 10 years. There were 263,515 marriages in England and Wales in 1999, the latest year for which data is available, compared with 346,697 in 1989 and 368,853 in 1979.

Robert Whelan, director of Family and Youth Concern, said it would be wrong to welcome the figures. "We think, ´Good, divorce is down,´ when we see this, but the proportion of the population that is married is down," he said.

Another worrying trend, noted The Times on Aug. 22, is the big rise in the breakdown of "second" marriages.

The number of divorces granted to couples where at least one partner had been married before, rose from 18,000 in 1981 to 28,000 in 1999. Among couples in which both partners were previously divorced, the numbers getting a divorce doubled, from 7,000 in 1981 to 14,000 in 1999.

Lack of support for families

In the face of evidence showing how domestic life is threatened, governments outside the United States have, with exceptions such as France and Norway, been slow to support the family.

Recently, the Spanish government announced it was freezing tax deductions for children, for the third consecutive year. The Madrid daily ABC on Oct. 23 quoted family groups as saying that "the family continues to be discriminated against by the government."

Budget figures for 2002 show that the tax deduction for children will not be adjusted for inflation. In contrast, other social spending, such as pensions, has been adjusted annually for price increases. A spokesman for social welfare with the ruling Popular Party couldn´t explain why the Economics Ministry had decided not to increase the tax deductions for children.

The ABC noted that Spain is last among European Union countries in terms of support for the family. If Spain´s treasury is seeking to save money by its decision, the benefits could be short-lived. On Oct. 21 the ABC reported that within the next 24 years the country will have to double its welfare spending because of an aging population.

By 2025, Spain will have 9 million inhabitants over 65 years of age, compared with 6.5 million today. Experts calculate that 1.2% of gross national product will have to go toward long-term care of the elderly by then, double the current level.

In Australia, too, critics have pointed out the lack of government support for families. The Melbourne daily newspaper The Age reported Oct. 25 that one in three marriages in Australia ends in divorce and the proportion continues to rise.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, a woman with a secondary education sacrifices about $162,000 ($82,500 U.S.) after taxes -- or 37% of her lifetime earnings -- when she has her first child. Australia is one of only three Western countries (with New Zealand and the United States) that have no national paid parental-leave program.

The Australian Family Court isn´t helping the family much either. The Australian Daily Telegraph reported Oct. 15 on a decision by Justice Richard Chisholm to have a marriage between a female and her "husband," a female-to-male transsexual, declared valid.

The Family Court said that the marriage was valid and that the definition of "man" should be based on contemporary thinking. The federal attorney general opposed the case, arguing the husband was not a man under marriage law. The couple have a child, conceived by in vitro fertilization.

On Aug. 24 the Sydney Morning Herald reported on a speech by the city´s Catholic archbishop, George Pell, to a group gathered by the magazine Quadrant. Archbishop Pell explained why the government should adopt fiscal policies to strengthen the family.

He pointed out how the advantages of preserving families include not only promoting the happiness of individuals but also a real benefit for society.

But tax policies alone will not be enough, explained Sydney´s Catholic leader. "The strong family is the religious family," he said. "We may not realize it yet, but the great experiment in radical secularism is ending. It has failed, and the failure of the family is one of the most important manifestations of this."