Cohabiting is an emerging threat to the health of children and society, two new research reports say.
In the latter half of the 20th century, “divorce posed the biggest threat to marriage in the United States,” sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox and 17 other scholars said in a report released this week by the Institute for American Values’ Center for Marriage and Families and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
That is no longer the case, they said.
“Today, the rise of cohabiting households with children is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s family lives,” the scholars said in “Why Marriage Matters, Third Edition: Thirty Conclusions From the Social Sciences.”
Cohabiting relationships are prone to instability, with “multiple transitions” and breakups. Children are less likely to thrive in such homes and may even be exposed to abuse from unrelated persons in their homes, the report says.
“The growing instability of American family life also means that contemporary adults and children are more likely to live in what scholars call ‘complex households,’ ” it added. There is scant research on homes in which children live with half-siblings, stepsiblings, stepparents and stepchildren, “but the initial findings are not encouraging.”
Mr. Wilcox, who directs the National Marriage Project, and his colleagues cautioned that while cohabitation is associated with increased risks of psychological and social problems for children, “this does not mean that every child who is exposed to cohabitation is damaged.”
Still, the risks are real, they said: In one study of children aged 6 to 11, about 16 percent of children in cohabiting homes had “serious emotional problems.” This was true of 4 percent of children living with married biological or adoptive parents.
Ann Schranz, chairman of the board of the Alternatives to Marriage Project (ATMP), disagreed with some of those assertions.
“Generalities about cohabiting are not particularly helpful,” said Ms. Schranz, a Unitarian Universalist minister in California.
“What matters is the quality of the relationships of the people cohabiting,” she said. “Just as there are poor relationships among cohabiting people, there are poor relationships among married people. The status of their relationship does not govern the quality of the relationship.”
Ideally, partners should be together without coercion, share a “general compatibility around values” and have “sufficient self-esteem and sensitivity toward the needs of others” that they can enter “a mutually supportive, caring relationship,” she said.
When that kind of relationship happens, “society benefits, the country benefits, children benefit,” she said.
Separately, in a report from the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, Mr. Wilcox and Johns Hopkins University sociology professor Andrew J. Cherlin offered proposals to encourage marriage and stability for children, especially those growing up in non-affluent homes.
One idea is a national social-marketing campaign to promote the “success sequence” for youth - finishing high school, getting a job, getting married and then having children,” they said in their paper on the “marginalization” of marriage.
Other ideas are divorce reform, more training for “middle-skill jobs,” a more generous child tax credit and elimination of the marriage penalty in the Earned Income Tax Credit.