Census estimates of the number of couples “living together” without marriage in the United States indicates an increase of nearly 1000 percent since 1980, and far too many of those households include children. The trend toward cohabitation instead of marriage is producing a cultural transformation that has profound ramifications both for people and public policies.
Though some policy experts claim that the shift is not a “cataclysmic” change, it has been disastrous for children who are bearing the brunt of the cultural trend. In fact, research findings follow a general pattern regardless of nationality, age of partners, or income of the couple: across cultures and over time, cohabitation is distinctly different from marriage and it produces distinctly different and decidedly inferior outcomes for children.
One of the most significant ramifications of the changes in attitudes toward marriage in the United States in the last three decades can be seen in the numbers. Nonmarital births increased by 242.6 percent between 1970 and 2003. In that same time period, the number of single-parent families increased by 203 percent, and the number of unmarried couples went up by 744 percent. While a little more than two-thirds of children still lived in a married couple family in the year 2002, the overall ratio of out-of-wedlock births rose to 34 percent; among black children, more than two-thirds are born out of wedlock and the ratio is even higher in many cities. The proportion of cohabiting couples with children continues to be more than 4 times as high as it was in 1970, though the proportion has dipped slightly in the past two years.
If current conditions continue, an appalling 40 percent of all children will spend some time in their childhood living in the household of a cohabiting couple. Among children born to a single (i.e., never-married) mother, the proportion likely to see a parent move in with an unmarried partner is 76 percent; in contrast, for children born to married parents, the proportion is 20 percent.
As weak as the marriage bond has become in the era of no-fault divorce, researchers across the philosophical, ideological and theological perspectives agree that the mother-father, married-couple family is best for children. On average the harmony, stability, and longevity of marital unions are still far superior to that of cohabiting couples. The whole truth put simply is: marriage is not merely good for kids; it is best for them!
Many studies show that a household structure not anchored by one’s own biological parents is damaging to the long-run life chances of children. The Urban Institute, a research think tank located in Washington, D.C., evaluated the well-being of the children living in cohabiting families. They found that all household arrangements are inferior to married biological or adoptive parents in terms of outcomes for children. Less than 8 percent of the children living in a married biological/adoptive family are poor, as compared to poverty rates of nearly 20 to 43 percent for those who are in cohabiting or single-mother households. Around a quarter of the children in other household arrangements are seldom read to, as compared to less than 20 percent in married families. Less than 5 percent of children in married families have behavior problems, but among other types of households it is at least double that number.
In fact, general agreement in the research community has begun to emerge as more and more data confirm the essential role of marriage. Recent studies show that family instability, measured by transitions into and out of married-couple households is strongly associated with negative outcomes for children. There has been a dramatic decline in the well being of children children in non-intact families have roughly twice the risk of social and behavioral problems compared with children in married-parent families.
In short, the mass of sociological evidence suggests that cohabitation is an inferior alternative to the married, intact, two-parent, mother-father family; it confirms that marriage works best in terms of the well-being of all the persons involved and that cohabitation is especially damaging to the social well-being of children and a considerable strain on the units of government that deal with social, correctional and welfare issues.
One study put it very bluntly: “[T]he practice of establishing households among unmarried couples does not serve the best interests of adults, children, society or governments.” Indeed, couples living together without marriage establish an unstable home, put their children at risk, encourage domestic violence and poverty, and produce a weakened society.
Janice Shaw Crouse is senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, Concerned Women for America’s think tank.