Why divorce makes women the poorer sex

A new study shows men's income rising 25% after a split, but many ex-wives are plunged into poverty

The common perception surrounding divorce is that wives generally take their husbands to the cleaners. But the first study to track the changing wealth of British divorcees claims the opposite to be true, especially when the separating couple have children.

The effects of divorce upon income are so marked that they are enough to haul men out of poverty while plunging women into it. The incomes of ex-husbands rose by 25 per cent immediately after the split, but women saw a sharp fall in their finances, which rarely regained pre-divorce levels.

Some 27 per cent of women ended up living in poverty as a result – three times the rate of men – and only 31 per cent received maintenance payments from ex-husbands for their children.

"The difference between the sexes is stark. But this is not so much a gender thing as a parent thing. The key differences are not between men and women but between fathers and mothers," said Professor Stephen Jenkins, a director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research, who carried out the survey. He combined data from 14 British Household Panel Surveys from 1991 to 2004 with information from five European surveys, then came up with new per capita incomes by recalculating the figures using the same formula employed by the Government to measure poverty.

"The percentage change in income is less if [women] have worked beforehand and continue working after the relationship breakdown. There is also a potential positive impact if she remarries," he told The Observer.

The situation was only reversed in cases where the ex-husband remarried and had children with his new partner while paying child maintenance to his former wife, Professor Jenkins said, adding that the only way to even out the inequalities was to tackle differences between the roles of men and women in the labour market and within the family.

Ruth Smallacombe, of divorce specialists Family Lawyers in Partnership, said: "The general belief that men get fleeced by their divorces while women get richer and live off the proceeds has long been due for exposure as a pernicious myth. In reality, women often suffer economic hardship when they divorce. In addition, the resentment caused by unfair financial settlements has many knock-on effects."

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