Children with divorced parents on average earn less, are less educated & less likely to marry: MSF

This is the first time a local study has set out to understand this issue.

Nigel Chua | December 08, 2020, 06:33 PM

A study by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) says that children of divorcees face a long-term "divorce penalty".

This is the first time a local study has set out to understand this issue.

After controlling for demographic variables using a "matching approach", the study compared children whose parents had divorced with children whose parents remained married, at the age of 35:

These were the findings:

  • Less likely to obtain a university degree. 37 per cent of children from intact families obtained a degree. However, only 27.8 per cent of children from divorced families did so, making for a difference of 9.2 percentage points.
  • Likely to earn less. The average income percentile rank of children from intact families was 46.7, while the average income percentile rank of children from divorced families was 41.8. This means that the income rank of children from divorced families was 4.9 percentile lower on average.
  • Likely to have lower CPF balances. The average CPF balance percentile rank of children from intact families was 47.5, while the average CPF balance percentile rank of children from divorced families was 40.7 (lower down the CPF balance distribution). In other words, the CPF rank of children of divorced parents was 6.8 percentiles lower on average.
  • Slightly less likely to marry. 75.9 per cent of children from intact families were married by the age of 35, compared to 73.6 of children from divorced families. The difference was 2.3 percentage points.
  • More likely to divorce, if they married. Among children from intact families, 13.8% underwent divorce by the age of 35. However, 21.7% of children from divorced families did so by the same age. The difference was 7.9 percentage points.

However, MSF emphasised that the findings only showed average results.

It highlighted the fact that "many children" from divorced families did still go on to achieve higher educational qualifications and remain married, even though the study said that they were less likely to do so on average, MSF said.

How the study was carried out

The study looked at "multiple sources of administrative and survey records" for more than 101,180 Singaporean children born in 1979, 1980, and 1981.

8.8 per cent, or 8,880 of them, had experienced parental divorce before they were 21.

Those who were 21 years and older, or were already married when their parents divorced were excluded from the study.

"Matching approach"

The study controlled for demographic variables using a "matching approach", and matched children from divorced and intact families based on a range of demographic characteristics.

These included characteristics like their gender, year of birth, and parents’ age and highest qualifications attained at the point of marriage, MSF said.

This meant that the children being compared were of similar profiles, apart from their parents' marital status.

Screenshot from MSF's study.

MSF pointed out, however, that there could also be "unobservable attributes" such as the family environment, which could have affected the children's outcomes as well as the likelihood that their parents would divorce.

"While the results might not strictly inform us of the causal impact of divorce, they provide an indicative sense of children’s long-term outcomes associated with parental divorce," MSF said.

Why did MSF conduct this study?

MSF pointed to overseas literature on divorce which suggested that children who experienced parental divorce potentially face negative consequences even into adulthood.

It explained that its study was to examine whether this was true in Singapore's context.


Also, a better understanding of the "divorce penalty" faced by children could help to shape interventions for children when couples file for divorce, MSF said.

The ministry stressed the importance of intervention to mitigate the “divorce penalty” on children.

Upstream intervention 

"Upstream intervention" to help couples build strong marriages includes government support for soon-to-wed couples attending marriage preparation programmes to strengthen their spousal communication, problem solving and conflict resolution skills, MSF said.

For example, up to S$140 of rebates are given to those who complete programmes conducted by approved Social Service Agencies.

Helping children adjust

MSF also said that there are six Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (DSSAs) currently supporting parents and children through counselling, case management and family dispute management.

These DSSAs conduct programmes to help divorced parents co-parent, and to help children manage their parents' divorce.

Facts and figures on divorce

According to MSF's data, The number of divorces in Singapore increased over the last decade.

Between 2015 and 2019, the annual average number of divorces was 7,170.

This was slightly higher than the number in the preceding five-year period, which was 7,018.

Consistently more than half of divorces from 2010 to 2019 involved children under 21 years old.

Screenshot from MSF's study.

The study report is available on MSF's website.

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Top image via Zoriana Stakhniv on Unsplash