Is “Best Interest of the Child” Best for Every Child? The Long-Term Implications of Gender-Neutral Custody Laws

Yang Chen, Ohio State University

I study the adoption of the best interests of the child doctrine (BIC) in the 1970s and the 1980s across most states in the U.S., which gave fathers and mothers equal treatment in child custody cases. I develop an intra-household Nash bargaining model, which predicts that the new, gender-neutral custody regulations give fathers greater bargaining power and a larger share of resources within marriage. This implies that children will enjoy fewer resources in the household. Importantly, it applies to children who do not experience divorce. Using the U.S. Census and the ACS data since 1960, I exploit the variation across states in the timing of adopting the BIC to measure its long-term impact on children. The empirical results support theoretical predictions: adults who were exposed to the BIC as children obtain less education, and females have lower labor supply. Moreover, these impacts are independent of changes in other divorce legislations.

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Presented in Session 158: Family Structure and Schooling