- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

Children do best when they live with their married parents, says a recent study that looked at families and poverty, hunger, behavioral problems and early-reading habits.

Cohabiting couples with children appear to have a financial edge over single-mother families, say study leaders and Urban Institute analysts Greg Acs and Sandi Nelson.

"The research re-establishes the point that children living with cohabiting families even cohabiting parents aren't doing nearly as well as kids who live with both their parents and those parents are married," said Mr. Acs.

Still, children in cohabiting families "are doing better than kids with single mothers," he said. This "flags a trend to keep an eye on," Mr. Acs said.

"While there is a burgeoning literature on cohabitors, most of it does not focus on cohabitors with children," he and Miss Nelson wrote in their paper on children and cohabiting, released last month.

According to the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF), a database of 44,000 households, the number of cohabiting homes with children jumped from 4.6 percent in 1997 to 6 percent in 1999.

Mr. Acs and Miss Nelson reviewed NSAF data, looking at aspects of children's lives and whether they lived in homes with married parents, unmarried-but-cohabiting parents, parents with live-in lovers or single mothers.

Married-parent families were by far the most prosperous less than 8 percent were poor and had the least amount of food worries, with around 20 percent reporting "food insecurity."

More than 80 percent of married-parent families read to their preschoolers a measure of school readiness and less than 5 percent of these families reported "behavior problems" in their children.

The Urban Institute researchers found that cohabiting homes were next best financially, with roughly 21 percent of children in cohabiting households living in poverty, compared with 43.5 percent of children living in single-mother homes.

Cohabiting homes were also less likely to worry about having enough to eat around 42 percent of cohabiting homes were "food insecure," compared with 53.5 percent of single-mother homes.

Beyond that, cohabiting homes:

• Were about the same as single-mother homes in their efforts to read to preschoolers.

• Were more likely than single-mother homes to report "behavior problems," especially with children ages 6 to 11.

When the researchers looked at different cohabiting arrangements unmarried parents versus parents who live with an adult boyfriend or girlfriend they didn't see any significant statistical differences for children.

However, there was a suggestion that live-in boyfriends or girlfriends raised the household income, Mr. Acs said. This may be because unmarried parents who cohabit tend to be younger and less educated than older, more established cohabiting partners, he said.

On the other hand, children, especially teenagers, who live with a parent and her or his lover appear more likely to have behavior problems than children who live with unmarried parents. This may be because the new boyfriend or girlfriend signals at least one "disruption" in the family, Mr. Acs said.

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