National Marriage Project: 'Why Marriage Matters' Study Says Cohabiting Parents Do Kids Harm

Unmarried, cohabiting parents may be putting their kids at risk for a host of personal problems-- at least according to a new report from the University of Virgina's National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values. But are the findings in the report really as straightforward as they seem?

The report, released August 16 and entitled "Why Marriage Matters," pulls together findings from 18 scholars to argue that kids living in cohabiting households don't do as well socially, educationally and psychologically as kids living in intact married households. The authors point to a lack of stability in cohabiting relationships as one of the culprits: cohabiting couples with a child are more than twice as likely to break up before their child turns 12 as their married counterparts. That lack of stability--defined as the rotating crop of parent-like figures who transition in and out of kids' lives--is tied to school failure, behavior problems, drug use and loneliness. The effects are especially evident in children who experience several of these transitions.

The findings are cause for concern, according to the authors, because cohabiting families are on the rise: there are twelve times as many today as there were in the 1970s. Recent statistics show that 42 percent of kids have lived in a cohabiting household by the age of twelve (by contrast, only 24 percent of kids have experienced divorce by that age). Marriage, the authors say, is the gold standard for stability and is therefore the relationship that will ensure kids have the best shot at succeeding in life.

But since the report was released, a number of critics have argued that the lack of a marriage vow alone can't account for the problems among kids of unmarried couples. Rates of cohabitation are deeply connected to race, class, and education, they say (and indeed, poor communities have seen the biggest declines in marriage rates and the biggest upswings in out-of-wedlock births in recent decades).

We asked Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, to take us through the findings in the report, and respond to some of the criticism it has received:

What was the most surprising finding of the report?

That kids in America today are more likely to see mom and/or dad cohabiting, and they are less likely to actually experience a parental divorce.

We know that stability [defined as no departure of a parent/partner or entry of a new parent/partner into the family home] tends to foster better outcomes for children. One recent estimate from the National Survey of Family Growth found that kids in the mid-2000s born to cohabiting parents were more than twice as likely to see mom and dad break up by the age of 12 compared to kids born to married parents.

Based on your findings, is a child of cohabitation better or worse off than a child of a single mother?

It depends. On the economic front, kids in cohabiting households tend to do better than kids in a single parent house, in part because they have access to two adults who can bring an income or resources into the home. When it comes to other outcomes, like depression, or drug use or school failure, the outcomes are pretty similar between kids who are in single parent families and kids in cohabiting families.

What about a child of cohabitation versus a child of divorce--who fares better there?

People are often mystified at equating divorce and cohabiting, because one is the break-up and one is the existence of a relationship. So why would I draw an equivalency between those different events? The reason is that in much of the research on child well-being, the social, the educational and the psychological outcomes for kids look quite similar for kids in single parent families, kids in families that have been affected by divorce, and kids in cohabiting families.

The one exception to that is the instance of child abuse: kids who are in cohabitation households with mom and mom's boyfriend are much more likely to be sexually, emotionally, and psychically abused. In that regard, the cohabiting household is truly distinctive.

Divorced kids are better off if mom remains stably single or if she waits to get married before she brings a new parent into the household. The take away message here is that people should be careful before they bring someone into the home and that ideally, they should get married before they do so, in part because marriage tends to make people treat their own relationship and any kids involved more seriously.

Some people would argue that strong, committed cohabiting relationships are otherwise equal to marriage. In your opinion, what makes them different?

Marriage has a big ritual at the beginning that draws in family and friends that basically punctuates both to the couple themselves and to their community that this couple is committed to each other. There are norms that go along with that like fidelity, commitment, compromise, communication and trust. Marriage has all those things associated with it…It's therefore more conducive to fostering good behavior on the part of partners and parents. Because of that, we know that typically, marriages are more much more stable than cohabiting relationships.

But how do you respond to those, like Lisa Belkin of the New York Times who argued that it's not the act of marriage that stabilizes a family, but rather, that marrying is a reflection of a positive stable relationship?

It's true that marriage is an expression of a couple's sense that they have the commitment and the trust and the quality of a relationship to move forward…But the big point I'd like to make there is that marriage is also an institution that shapes men and women in ways that typically benefit them and their children because it provides a collection of rituals and a series of norms that help guide them through their adult lives.

One of those norms, for instance, is sexual fidelity. Even in a post-Tiger Woods or Arnold Schwarzenegger world, it's still the case today that couples who are married are about four times more likely to be faithful to one another than are cohabiting couples.

That's in part because when you stand up in a church or a synagogue or a courtroom and you affirm your devotion to one another, you are making a statement to your partner, and to friends and family. It's much harder to break that fidelity norm as a consequence because people see you as married, and you see yourself as married.

Marriage is not just a piece of paper: it's a social institution that is often transformative for men and women. The analogy here is that people, for instance, could contract with smart PhDs on an informal, private basis to get highly educated. And some would do just as well with that approach as people who would go to college. Nevertheless, in general, college provides people with a script and a set of norms and rituals and experience and gives them something more valuable.

Cohabiting rates are significantly higher amongst poorer and less educated communities. One might say that some families are unstable not because the parents aren't married, but because they have a lack of education, jobs and resources, as June Carbone and Naomis Chan argued for The Huffington Post last week.

One reason we are seeing more instability in the American family, and one reason more people are cohabiting, is that the economic foundations of marriage have eroded in working class and poor communities. Decent, stable work is an important economic foundation of marriage, and it's harder for working class and poor men nowadays to get decent stable, paying jobs.

If working class couples don’t have access to good jobs, they're more like to cohabit, they're less likely to marry, and they're also more likely to divorce or break up. I agree with that point.

But, we also find that cultural shifts are driving increases in family instability in American life. Take for instance college-educated Americans whose fortunes, generally speaking, have been pretty consistent. Why is it that they've seen their own marriages stabilize so much since the 1980s? The evidence suggests that economic factors alone can't account for that. One factor here is that college- educated Americans are now more marriage-minded, and that’s a cultural factor. They have become more opposed to divorce since the 1970s, and less educated Americans have become more accepting of divorce since the 1970s. That cultural shift also accounts for the growing instability of working class and poor communities.

What it boils down to is that many progressives don’t think the institution of marriage has any net benefit beyond having a decent income and strong relationships, and I think that view is naïve. In every other domain of life, they would say the state needs to do xy or z or businesses need to do xy or z to promote higher quality and more stable, healthier lives. We need to appreciate that institutions matter in the home as well, not just in the market place and the political arena.

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