Bram Hogendoorn: What does divorce have to do with the education poverty gap?

In Episode 2 of the DIAL podcast, Bram Hogendoorn from the University of Amsterdam discusses the DIAL Working Paper, Divorce and the growth of poverty over the life course: a risk and vulnerability approach. The research is part of the NORFACE-funded project, Critical  Life Events and the Dynamics of Inequality: Risk, Vulnerability and Cumulative Disadvantage (CRITEVENTS).


In Episode 2 of the DIAL podcast, Bram Hogendoorn from the University of Amsterdam discusses the DIAL Working Paper, Divorce and the growth of poverty over the life course: a risk and vulnerability approach. The research is part of the NORFACE-funded project, Critical  Life Events and the Dynamics of Inequality: Risk, Vulnerability and Cumulative Disadvantage (CRITEVENTS).

Christine Garrington  0:00  

Welcome to DIAL. A podcast where we tune in to evidence on inequality over the lifecourse. In today’s episode we’re asking what is divorce got to do with the poverty gap between higher and lower educated people? I’m joined by Bram Hogendoorn from the University of Amsterdam, whose NORTHFACE-funded research shows that family dynamics matter, and the policy could do more to ensure that divorce doesn’t aggravate economic inequalities.

Bram Hogendoorn  0:26  

Numerous studies have shown that divorce is associated with increases in poverty. This makes sense because people suddenly have to make a living off of one income only. But those are just averages so when we start zooming in, we see large differences between different people. For instance, men often only suffer short term economic consequences of divorce, whereas some women fall into poverty for prolonged periods of time. In our research, we are not only interested in gender differences but also differences by education. So, we know that poverty rates among lower educated people, increase over the lifecourse, whereas poverty rates among higher educated people are pretty stable. So, the poverty gap between lower and higher educated people grows as they age, and we want to know what this has to do with divorce.

Christine Garrington  1:17  

Okay so, as you mentioned that your research is really quite focused on the role of education in all of this, but your approach to this question is really rather different from what’s gone before. I wonder if you can explain a bit about how it’s different? And why it is you think that this particular approach is important to a better understanding of the impacts of divorce?

Bram Hogendoorn  1:35  

Yeah. So there are two pathways by which divorce may increase the poverty gap between lower and higher educated people. The first pathway is that lower educated people may simply divorce more often and previous studies confirm this, but these studies assume that divorce affects people of different education in the same way which need not be true. The second pathway is that lower educated people may be hit harder by a given divorce, and there’s very few studies on this. Moreover, the problem there is that, you know, these studies looking at the second pathway only look at people who are divorced, so they ignore the different probabilities of getting a divorce in the first place. In our research what we try to do is to integrate both pathways from divorced poverty. And in that way we can understand how divorce affects the growth of poverty gaps between education levels.

Christine Garrington  2:29  

Right so where and who did you get your information from to help you look at this issue?

Bram Hogendoorn  2:34  

We use data from the Netherlands. The Dutch government has extensive population registers, and it knows the educational credentials, marital status, and earnings of almost all its residents. And thanks to these registers we have many observations, and we don’t have any missing data, due to non-response for instance.

Christine Garrington  2:55  

When you talk about the vulnerability to the consequences of divorce, which is what we’re talking about in this paper, what exactly do you mean? Just explain that for us.

Bram Hogendoorn  3:05  

People typically think of vulnerability, as the emotional problems that come with divorce. And you know that that’s definitely an important issue, but our research focuses on economic vulnerability, which we define as the probability of falling into poverty. While the reason to focus on this is that falling into poverty forms a serious threat to the well-being of adults and their children. So we believe that this form of economic vulnerability is a very relevant outcome to the study.

Christine Garrington  3:38  

So when it came to which educational group was most at risk of divorce, what did you find there specifically?

Bram Hogendoorn  3:45  

We divided our groups into three levels of education, so low, middle, and high. And we found that 10 years after marriage – 12% of the higher educated were divorced, 21% of the middle educated were divorced and almost 30% of the lower educated were divorced. So the lower educated are most at risk of divorce.

Christine Garrington  4:08  

And was this group also most vulnerable to those negative consequences of divorce that you were talking about? 

Bram Hogendoorn  4:15  

Yeah, that’s correct. The lower educators that weren’t only more likely to divorce, but they’re also more vulnerable when a divorce occurs. So for instance, out of one divorce, the poverty rate of higher educated people increases from about 5 to 8%, whereas the poverty rates of an over educated people increase from 18 to 35%.

Christine Garrington  4:35  

And how did these negative effects manifest themselves over the lifecourse? Because that’s quite an important aspect of your work as well. So as people got older and their lives continued how did those problems, how did those vulnerabilities those difficulties, those negative effects shows themselves?

Bram Hogendoorn  4:50  

We noticed that eventually most people recover and managed to get out of the poverty situation again. So that’s very positive. Yet, at the same time, the higher educated recovered faster than average.

Christine Garrington  5:04  

And, were there any differences between men and women at all? Men compared with women?

Bram Hogendoorn  5:09  

Yeah, there, there are important differences between men and women. When it comes to the economic consequences of divorce. So, when speaking about childless couples, we find that women suffer somewhat more from divorce than men do. But when it comes to parents the differences are huge. For instance, the poverty rate of lower educated mothers increases from about 30%, before divorce to about 60% in the year of divorce, which means that 60% of all lower educated divorced mothers, basically, or, you know, right after the split. And for lower educated fathers almost nothing changes, you know I’m talking here about the budget contexts, but I’m pretty sure that this also generalises to for instance the UK or Switzerland and also some other countries. So it probably has to do with the fact that Dutch women work fewer hours unpaid labour, and often assume responsibility for the children after divorce.

Christine Garrington  6:11  

Those are quite striking figures aren’t they? So what do you what would you say that we learn about the poverty gaps resulting from divorce in these different groups and what does that tell us about how inequality plays out over people’s lives?

Bram Hogendoorn  6:23  

That’s an important question. And we can conclude that the lower educated, have a double disadvantage. They divorced more often, and they are more economically vulnerable to those divorces. And as a result, economic inequality between lower and higher education groups grows as their lives unfold.

Christine Garrington  6:41  

And clearly inequality a big area for policymakers who would like to tackle it and reduce those gaps, what would you say that your approach, well would you say that your approach provides us with a rather more nuanced and better understanding of what it might mean for, for those policymakers, not just in the Netherlands, but as you were saying just there elsewhere in the UK other similar countries? You know, people who are looking to reduce inequality of this kind.

Bram Hogendoorn  7:08  

Yeah. Our approach distinguishes between the risk of divorce, and economic vulnerability of divorce, and we can show that both pathways play a role in the growth of inequality, but we also show that the relative importance of these pathways differs between subgroups. So this means that policymakers must realise that economic inequalities are affected by family dynamics. For example, current rules of joint taxation for married couples benefits some education levels more than others, or rules of spousal maintenance questions on education levels more against divorce than they do others to others. So, our research could inform changes in these policies, so that divorce does not aggravate economic inequality

Christine Garrington  7:56  

Divorce and the growth of poverty over the life course: a risk and vulnerability approach is a DIAL working paper by Bram Hogendoorn, Thomas Leopold and Thijs Bol. It can be downloaded at, where you can also find details of all the DIAL research projects. Thanks for listening to this episode of our podcast which is presented and produced by Chris Garrington and edited by Elina Kilpi-Jakonen.