This is part four of a five-part review of Joseph Sorge's documentary, "Divorce Corp." See also:
- Divorce Corp. Review, Part 1: The Unreliable Narrator
- Divorce Corp. Review, Part 2: Babies and Bathwater
- Divorce Corp. Review, Part 3: Questions, Questions, Questions
- Divorce Corp. Review, Part 5: Divorce Reform in the Real World
In part 2 of this review, I quoted a prominent ADR professional as describing Divorce Corp. as "a tremendous wasted opportunity," for its failure to propose meaningful reforms to the existing family court system. Specifically, Joseph Sorge proposes that the current system be replaced with something akin to the "Scandinavian system" (treating Denmark, Norway, and Sweden as one entity). However, in pushing this agenda, Sorge fails to recognize the roles that the underlying socioeconomic structures of the United States and Scandinavian countries play in shaping their respective divorce laws. For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on just one of the Scandinavian countries: Sweden.
Taxes and Government Services in the U.S.
A significant percentage of Americans have a visceral aversion to taxes, especially if they think those taxes are going toward programs that unscrupulous people will take advantage of. Hence the notion of a "welfare queen," a term implying that a woman can lead a comfortable lifestyle simply by having lots of children and living "on the dole." (I think perhaps the people who coined this term had not themselves experienced the supposed "comfort" of raising multiple children at once.) Consequently, even the top 0.1 percent of Americans pays only about 35% of their income in taxes, on average.
In fact, it is exceedingly difficult to be poor in America. In 'Nickeled and Dimed,' Barbara Ehrenreich describes her first-hand experience of attempting to "get by" on minimum wage. Short version: she didn't. The situation is particularly bad for women who, despite nominal workplace equality, still earn significantly less than men for comparable work.
Perhaps nowhere has the subject of social welfare been more hotly contested than in the area of health insurance coverage. In 2010, when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. "Obamacare") was enacted, more than 49 million people in the U.S. were without health insurance coverage. Under the new law, that number is expected to decrease to a still significant 26 million in 2019.
Taxes and Government Services in Sweden
In contrast, the Guardian reports that "most people [in Sweden] ... will pay between 49 and 60 per cent [sic] through a combination of local government and state income tax." This does not include the value added tax (VAT) of 25%. In short, the Swedes pay a LOT of taxes. And they get a lot in return. Here is a sampling of what the average Swede can expect:
- 97% of medical costs paid by the state;
- Free buffet meals for students in elementary and secondary schools;
- Free higher education for Swedish, EU/EEA, and Swiss citizens;
- A statutory minimum of 25 days of paid work leave per year;
- 13 months [sic] of paid leave (16 months total) per child, at the lesser of 77.6% of the employee's salary or $3,400 per month; at least 60 days are reserved exclusively for each parent;
- A monthly state-provided child allowance up to age 16;
- ... and much, much more.
Needless to say, any American politician who attempted to raise taxes to support programs like those in Sweden would quickly be labeled a socialist and forced out of the public eye.
Child Support, Alimony, and Property Division in Sweden
In Swedish divorces, the presumption is that the spouses will be economically separated, with each being responsible for his or her own expenses following the divorce. However, Swedish divorce law does provide for both child support and a form of spousal "maintenance" that is roughly equivalent to transitional alimony in Massachusetts.
As I wrote in part 2 of this review, child support, alimony, and property division are not necessarily cut-and-dried issues in Swedish divorce. When disputes arise over child support or alimony, Sweden provides for judicial resolution by a single judge or panel of judges in the District Court. Disputes over property are to be decided by a "marital property administrator," and there is a process for appealing the administrator's decision.
Implications for Divorce in the U.S. and Sweden
It is easy to see how the different resources available to Americans and Swedes affect the landscape of divorce in each country. Although Swedish divorce laws provide mechanisms for dealing with disputes over maintenance and property division, such disputes are far less likely to arise when major sources of financial stress – such as medical costs and higher education – are provided for by the government. It certainly doesn't hurt that Sweden is much closer than the U.S. to achieving income equality between men and women; after accounting for choice of profession and sector, Swedish women's income is 94 percent of that of Swedish men. A combination of social welfare systems and statutory equality in parental leave means that both parents can count on a certain degree of financial stability post-divorce.
In an email exchange with Mark Baer, Joseph Sorge wrote, "I know you don’t think the US is ready for [a Scandinavian divorce system]. But we need to start phasing it in now so that we can have a healthy system in 10 years." What Sorge fails to recognize is that any court system must be compatible with the laws and society it serves. You cannot change the court system in ways the underlying laws and socioeconomic structure cannot endure.
Just imagine if we were to try to impose such a clean financial break on divorcing American couples. Who would be responsible for their children's educations? Their medical expenses? For parents of very young children, how would they support themselves during the early months? Sorge also wants a presumption of equal parenting post-divorce. How does he intend to implement that, in a country that devalues parenting time so badly that we trail the world in both paid maternity leave and paternity leave? (In Massachusetts, we have a statutory right to only eight weeks of parental leave, which MCAD has interpreted as applying to both parents. The employer is not required to provide pay or benefits during that time, which is a significant deterrent to taking advantage of that statutory right.)
In short, if we want a family court system that looks like Sweden's, first we must have families that look like Sweden's, with all the attendant social and financial supports. The fact that Divorce Corp. effectively considers the "Scandinavian" divorce system in a socioeconomic vacuum is a fatal flaw to its vociferous argument that we should adopt such a system.
In the next and final part of this review, I will discuss other family court reforms that would be both feasible and practical in the United States.