Living Together with Kids

Aug 8, 2012 by

A new report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia says cohabitation has replaced divorce as the biggest source of instability for American families. W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project and the co-author of the new report noted that the rate of American couples who live together without being married are now rising fast. Cohabitation grew by 13% in 2010 alone and while it may be a simpler, more convenient arrangement for the couples involved, cohabitation can have serious negative ramifications for the children who might be in those cohabiting households.

Wilcox pointed out that cohabitation did not begin to play a central role in the American family experience until the 1970s, when it became a popular alternative or prelude to marriage. Since the early 1990s, cohabitation has become an increasingly popular way to raise children. Today more than 2.5 million children live in cohabiting homes, a number that is ten times higher than in the 1970s. Today, over than 40% of American kids will spend some time in a cohabiting household, either with their own biological parents or with one parent and an unrelated adult. The proliferation of cohabitation has increased to the point where children are actually more likely to experience cohabitation than a divorce.

However, there is some good news on the family front in that the divorce rates for married families with children have now returned to their pre-divorce revolution levels in the 1970s. The result is that children born to married parents now have better odds of growing up with both parents, compared to those children born in the 1970s at the height of the divorce revolution.

Author Wilcox also pointed out four main factors that are driving the shift to cohabitation in the U.S. today. The first factor is that in an increasingly individualistic society, more people are seeking the freedom and flexibility that cohabitation affords them. The second factor is that cohabitation and childbearing have become more prevalent with people who do not have college degrees because the job opportunities for less-educated, working-class and poor men are scarce these days. This creates a situation where it is harder for Americans without college degrees to get and stay married. Wilcox also noted that religious attendance in the United States has shrunk over the last 40 years and the growing secularization of American life means there is now less stigma attached to cohabitation. The final factor in the shift toward cohabitation is that the children of divorce are more likely to engage in cohabitation themselves and those unsure about marriage may see cohabitation as an opportunity to avoid the commitment associated with marriage.

Some have speculated that the negative consequences of cohabitation come mainly from social trends in those communities that tend to cohabit. This leads to the question of whether encouraging people to marry is better than trying to combat the drug abuse, child abuse, and neglect within the communities that most experience it. W. Bradford Wilcox explained that while it is true that cohabiting couples who have children tend to be less educated, poorer, and less committed to their relationship than couples who have children in marriage, it is also true that children are less likely to thrive in cohabiting families than in married families where their parents have the resources they need to be good parents.

It is also a fact that even after you control for factors like income, education, and ethnicity, children in cohabiting families are significantly more likely to suffer from depression, delinquency and drug use. This is backed up by studies that show that kids living in a cohabiting stepfamily were more than twice as likely to use drugs even after controlling for differences in income, education, race, and family instability. Children form cohabiting stepfamilies score even worse on these outcomes than children from stable single-parent families too. According to Mr. Wilcox and the National Marriage Project, the answer is to improve the American family home environment in a number of different ways ranging from improving the education system to improving job opportunities.


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