Tag Archives: cohabitation

Cohabitation as an inertia problem

Here’s another view on the cohabitation-parenting discussion.

This is from Scott Stanley, a psychology professor who has a blog called Sliding vs Deciding, and who told me he is a co-signer on “Why Marriage Matters” by W. Bradford Wilcox.

His view is that some couples end up living together because the barriers to entry are low, and then stay together out of inertia even though their commitment is low, and then have children in a less-committed relationship, with a higher-than-average risk of negative consequences. In a longer post, he writes:

There is a lot of selection involved in who cohabits prior to having clear, mutual plans for marriage. However, on top of those selection characteristics, cohabitation adds to the picture by making some of these already riskier relationships harder to leave. This does not prevent a child from being born to two cohabiting parents. … This model of cohabitation risk based on inertia fully embraces selection. In this way of thinking, cohabitation may not causes poorer parenting but it may well increase the number of couples who have or bear children who are not well matched and who will have difficulty parenting together. Hence, one can predict that a net societal increase in cohabitation that begins before partners have a clear and mutual commitment will lead to a greater number of children living in difficult contexts.

This seems like a reasonable hypothesis of what happens in some cohabiting relationships. This perspective is more fully developed in an article Stanley wrote with Galena Rhoades and Howard Markman called, “Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect.” Empirically, there is lots of evidence that many couples “slide” into cohabitation rather than making a deliberate decision to do so, going back to the qualitative research by Wendy Manning and Pam Smock.

Policy-wise, I’m still inclined to look for ways to reduce the negative consequences that might follow from these arrangements, rather than try to redirect trends in family formation patterns, which undermines potentially positive innovations, and hasn’t proven successful anyway.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago:

Yes, there is less marriage, and many people are less well off without it. Does that mean we have a “marriage” problem, or a family inequality problem? … In the categorical math of inequality, you can try (with little chance of success in this case) to reduce the number of people in the disadvantaged category (non-married families), or you can try to reduce the size of the disparity between the two categories.


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Cohabitation dustup followup thoughts

Just a few roundup thoughts and graphs on the cohabitation-is-bad-for-kids thing.

First, W. Bradford Wilcox sent me an email reply, which he asked me to post, and I have added it to the comments section of yesterday’s post, here. (It doesn’t include complete references to the passages he quotes or research he cites, which is a violation of my blog style requirements, so I’m not putting it in its own post.) Some of these comments are inspired by that reply, and some are just further thoughts.

Who are these cohabitors?

Host Pat Morrison, on the radio show with Wilcox and Stephanie Coontz, asked, “Are you looking at long-term relationships, Mr. Wilcox, or more transient relations, when you look at these unmarried couple figures?”

Wilcox, to his credit, does sometimes highlight this distinction, but it is too often lost. For example, on the show he mentioned the names of R. Kelly Raley and Shannon Cavanagh. It looks to me like he meant this Raley paper and this Cavanagh paper, both of which studied cohabiting step-family arrangements, not those in those in which biological or adoptive parents cohabit instead of marrying.

To clarify, there are two different family situations going under the name of “cohabitation” here:

  1. Some parents have children (through procreation or adoption) without being married. These are sometimes called “unmarried parents.” In 2009, 69% of children lived with “two parents,” including 4% who lived with “unmarried parents.”
  2. Sometimes people (usually women) who already have children move in with a man to whom they are not married. These could be thought of as step-cohabitating arrangements — but that cohabiting partner may or may not “parent” those children, and from a distance you can’t assume they are “cohabiting parents” or “unmarried parents.” In Census lingo, they are a single parent and that parent’s “unmarried partner.” In 2009, 27% of children lived with one parent, and 10.3% of them — or less than 3% of all children — live with a single parent and that parent’s partner. Of course, because these are relatively unstable relationships, more than 3% of children will have this experience at some point in their lives.

Anyway, these two “cohabiting” situations are very different. The New York Times Room for Debate on this was titled, “Should Parents Marry for the Kids?”, which seems like a reference to the first scenario. In fact, the URL for the item at NYT included, “shotgun-weddings-vs-cohabitating-parents,” as if the issue is about whether couples should marry when they are having kids. The great majority of the research in this area is not about that issue.

For example, the report that Wilcox cited in the NYT debate does show higher rates of abuse among children whose biological parents are living with a partner, controlling for basic demographics. It is not surprising that children are at greater risk of abuse when they live with unrelated adults (usually men), who are not committed to them as parents. Does that mean these cohabitation situations “cause” that abuse, or might there be, as I and others suggested, a selection mechanism? Contrary to what Wilcox suggested in the NYT piece, we can’t say from this research, but I am concerned that these families are experiencing tumult, uncertainty and insecurity on a scale unfamiliar to the majority of two-bio-parent-married families with whom they are being compared in these analyses. That is, the women who actually face the issue of whether their boyfriend should move in with them and their children do not have lives that are otherwise similar to the relatively low-risk reference groups in the research. In fact, even simple statistical controls for education, race and income, for example, are unlikely to capture the life experience and history of these mothers.

Single parents and crime

At the end of yesterday’s post I said that, “Today’s cohabitation-causes-bad-parenting is the 2010s version of the single-mothers-and-welfare-cause-crime hype from the 1980s.” Wilcox’s response to that is:

Evidently, Cohen believes that single parenthood per se has nothing to do with crime. Say what? What about Harper and McLanahan (2004), LaFree et al. (2010), and Sampson et al. (2005), among others? What does Cohen make of Sampson’s (1995) observation that “family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictors of… urban violence across cities in the United States?”

This actually convinces me even more of what I said (not what he says I said). I don’t know what causes crime, but I do know something about hype. That Sampson quote, for example, seems to be from a chapter in a 1995 book, in which he analyzed the pattern of crime rates across large cities in 1980 as a function of family structure and other variables. That analysis, besides being 30 years old (see below), is a perfect example of something that can’t show a causal effect of family structure on crime — besides a few demographic controls, things that cause (or are correlated with) single-parent families could be causing the crime. The same holds for the LaFree et al. 2010 paper, which I believe is this: “Still Separate and Unequal? : A City-Level Analysis of the Black-White Gap in Homicide Arrests since 1960.”

But on the hype issue: I hope many of you readers are too young to remember the 1980s, when (Black) single parenthood was the bogeyman behind the crack-homicide craze. So, let me ask conservative marriage people this: Why aren’t we still fighting that single-parenthood battle? Are single mothers gone? Of course not.

Two reasons come to mind: first, crime rates collapsed even though single parenthood didn’t; and second, the 1990s welfare reform used punitive economic sanctions to try to discourage single parenthood, and failed completely. Here are the trends.

Up until 1991 or so, it sure looked like single-parent families were the harbinger of a collapsing civilization:

Sources: Violent crime from Uniform Crime Reports, single mother families from U.S. Census Bureau.

In fact, from 1960 to 1991, the trends for violent crime rates and single-mother-headed families were correlated at .95! And then, in what can only be described as one of the greatest trend-correlation reversals of modern times, the bottom fell out from under violent crime, plunging American back into the light ages of the early 1970s — while more and more families continued to come under the reign of unmarried women. The correlation since 1991 is reversed: -.51. That’s something.

For what it’s worth, the same pattern holds if you use births to unmarried women instead of living arrangements of children. In this figure the blue line for violent crime is the same. Same story: family continues heading toward hell-in-a-hand-basket, yet peace now guides the planet.

Sources: Violent crime from Uniform Crime Reports, single mother births from these: a, b, c, d.

Maybe single-parenting does have a causal effect on crime — I’m not saying it doesn’t, and there reasons it might (such as lower levels of supervision). But what these trends show is that it was possible to reduce crime drastically without reversing the family structure tends.

How’s that change-family-structure-through-policy thing workin’ out for ya?

Finally, I argued previously that even if marriage is giving some people an advantage, I’d rather work to undermine that advantage (or, the disadvantage it implies for everyone else) than change marriage behavior.

In fact, the social engineers of traditional family salvation have already taken a very big whack at trying to redirect family structure trends, and it hasn’t worked. Remember welfare reform? Remember this stuff from the 1990s?

Welfare also plays a powerful role in promoting illegitimacy …  Being born outside of marriage and raised in single parent homes … doubles the probability a boy will become a threat to society, engage in criminal activity, and wind up in jail. … Steps must be taken to reduce future illegitimacy, beginning with restricting cash welfare to unmarried teen mothers.

Well, they got what they wanted. They kicked millions of families off welfare while the number in poverty remained virtually constant, ripping away that toxic incentive to have children in an unmarried state. And?

Source: TANF data from here.

I hope it was worth it.

Addendum: Paul Krugman today is thinking along similar lines…

If you’re an intellectual of a certain age, you remember that in the 80s and maybe a bit of a way into the 90s it was common on the right to see American society as being in a process of catastrophic moral decline, descending into social anarchy. Crime would continue to rise, chaos would continue to spread, until and unless we returned to the Victorian virtues — and more specifically, to Dickensian social policies, in which only the deserving poor — as so designated by faith-based charities — received help. … But then, in the 90s, a funny thing happened: in many ways, American society began healing. True, out-of-wedlock births continued to rise, although at a much slower pace. But crime plunged, and in general our society began to look a lot more functional… [OK, as a card-carrying sociologist I wouldn't say "functional"... -pnc]

h/t Neal Caren for the link.


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This cohabitation-causes-bad-parenting thing

W. Bradford Wilcox is getting bolder in his public campaign against cohabitation, and it’s moving him further from the evidence.

Today’s NY Times Room for Debate follows the last week’s appearance on KPCC radio, and his claim of a causal effect of cohabiting on parents’ parenting is growing more expansive.

Last week on the radio he was slightly cautious:

Part of that is what we call selection in the sciences, where certain types of people are more likely to select into a cohabiting relationship, and these are folks who generally have less economic resources and less commitment to each other. But there also seems to be kind of a causal effect of cohabitation, where the very fact of being in a relationship without that same degree of commitment and that same level of trust, and fidelity for instance, that in turn makes them more likely to be poorer functioning parents.

This week the cautious tone is gone:

But is cohabitation really the problem, or some deeper factor — like poverty or relationship troubles that predated the cohabitation? The truth is that these other factors account for some of cohabitation’s negative impact but the best studies suggest that cohabitation also has an independent negative effect, precisely because it does not institutionalize commitment in a way that is easily understood and honored by romantic partners and their friends and family.

Now the causal effect is found in “the best studies,” which somehow also are able to distinguish the reason for this causal effect, “because it does not institutionalize commitment…”

This is a dishonest representation of the scholarly record.

I can’t find any study that accounts for selection into cohabitation while finding a negative effect on parenting or children’s outcomes — and the claim that any negative effect is “because it does not institutionalize commitment” is essentially impossible to substantiate.

After Wilcox mentions “the best studies,” he quotes one that does not make a claim for an independent effect. He writes:

Children in cohabiting families are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, use drugs, or end up depressed, compared with children in intact, married families. They are also at least three times more likely to be physically, sexually or emotionally abused, according to a recent federal report.

But that study includes this:

Factors such as parents’ labor force participation, household socioeconomic status, family size, and family structure and living arrangement are not only associated with the incidence of maltreatment but are also correlated with each other. Further analyses could determine their independent relationships to maltreatment, such as whether households with more children have higher incidence rates even when household socioeconomic status is taken into account.

In a comprehensive 2008 review in Annual Review of Sociology titled “Family Structure and the Reproduction of Inequalities,” Sara McLanahan and Christine Percheski wrote:

Do children from families with two stably cohabiting, unmarried parents fare as well as children from married parent families? The evidence so far suggests they do not (Brown 2004, Artis 2007), although the research on this topic is limited.

If you follow those two references, you find that both scholars responsibly point out that they do not account for selection into cohabitation:

  • Artis (2007): “ these data cannot address how selection into marriage may influence these patterns.”
  • Brown (2004): “Selection likely plays a role in the family structure and child outcomes relationship but could not be addressed because of data limitations.”

On that radio show, Stephanie Coontz did a great job of explaining the risks of “causal generations,” and in today’s piece she bluntly titles her contribution, “Cohabitation Doesn’t Cause Bad Parenting.”

Sharon Sassler summarizes the actual evidence correctly, as I see it:

But a growing body of evidence suggests that any advantages from marriage are more a result of selection than causation. In other words, the most educated and economically established adults are the most likely to wed, and overwhelmingly defer childbearing until after marriage. The benefits redound to their children.

Unfortunately, the one-side-other-side format of these debates just provides fuel for Wilcox’s campaign, reducing the “debate” to a mind-numbing he-said-she-said in which the public is encouraged to choose the evidence that fits their preconceptions. In fact, Wilcox makes a direct appeal to the Times‘ readers’ preconception:

Anyone who disagrees should answer this question: When was the last time you saw a cohabiting couple enter their relationship by vowing, in front of their closest friends and family, to love and cherish one another, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do they part?

That is just ridiculous, a public relinquishment of his credential as a social scientist. Teaching people not to reason like this is one of the great contributions of sociology.

Today’s cohabitation-causes-bad-parenting is the 2010s version of the single-mothers-and-welfare-cause-crime hype from the 1980s. Both are dressed in a stated concern for the well-being of poor people, but both speak to the non-poor, creating a stigmatizing social distance from the poor, undermining real efforts to improve their conditions and reinforcing the “common sense” belief that systemic poverty results from poor individuals’ intimate decisions.


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NPR reports on a report

In today’s example of the sorry state of reporting, NPR reports on “a new report.”

I wasn’t even really awake this morning when I found myself thinking, “OK, here comes Brad Wilcox. OK, now here comes Stephanie Coontz.” It’s the Groundhog Day of social science journalism on the family.

It would  be surprising if it wasn’t: A right-wing think tank with academic gloss sets the agenda, and a news organization repeats its framing, adding in a single comment from the most-commonly quoted critic of conservative family distortion (Stephanie Coontz – who does all she can) — which they then undermine with a simplistic conclusion, which was not supported by any actual research: “Gottman’s advice, even if you decide not to tie the knot: pick a partner carefully, then hang in there — for better, or worse.”

Two unusually bad elements of this case: First, the audio version of the story, which is presumably how most people get their NPR, didn’t even mention the Institute for American Values, which is the foundation-funded publicity machine behind the “report.” And second, the deep-pockets have the gall to charge $6.50 for the report (do you just get the PDF?), and require registration for the “executive summary.” Did NPR get past the free, 3-page press release?


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Demographic trends and ngrams

Do words follow families?

I previously used Google ngrams to identify the arrival of terms such as “parenting” and “sibling rivalry.” And I took a shot at tracking family relation words in relation to family structure in histoty. But what about specific demographic trends that have captured the public’s attention and sparked debate? Here are two: cohabitation and divorce.


Cohabitation existed as a concept in law and culture for a long time before it appeared as a common household structure – a man and a woman living in what the Census Bureau used to call a “close personal relationship” (by which they didn’t mean any old close personal relationship). Looking at some of the old Google Books uses, it’s clear they are referring to men and women living together unmarried.

Here are the ngram for cohabitation (above) and the percent of U.S. households that include cohabitors. I’ve scaled them so the horizontal gridlines line up with the decades from 1960 to 2010.

You can’t see the scales, but they are similar up to 1980. That is, next to nothing till 1970, then a doubling to 1980.  But after that the demographic trend continued upward while the language trend plateaued.


Divorce appears to be something like a social panic, with the hype not often matching the facts, except in the most general sense that there is more divorce now than in the old days. In fact, divorce rates have had their ups and downs, as you can see below. Again, I’ve lined up the gridlines.

Here it appears that the word database doesn’t pick up the post-WWII spike in divorces. But the run-up in the 1970s is well represented. Then it took about 15 years for the gradual decline in divorce rates to be reflected in the word database. That’s reasonable, since this crude divorce rate is not quite reflected in the popular visibility of divorce (for example, the aging of the population will tend to reduce the crude divorce rate, as still-married people live on and on, adding to the denominator of the rate).

Anyway, I’m satisfied to conclude tentatively that ngrams trends may follow (or even drive) demographic trends, and I’m interested in possibility that the disparities in the timing of fluctuations might be useful.


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Coupling inequality

Cohabitation and equality go together like a horse and carriage. But where are they going?

Cohabitation has become more common during the recession, with unknown consequences for future families. The context in which couples move in together influences their relationships, and may affect the odds of a breakup. We know that economic hardship contributes to conflict within couples of all kinds, so couples that make decisions under duress may be scarred in ways we can’t predict.

If new couples are deciding to cohabit instead of marrying, or delaying the marriage decision, however, they may get off on a more egalitarian foot. Couples that live together before marriage share housework more, and are more likely to maintain separate finances.* And, unlike in married couples, cohabiting couples are more likely to stay together if they have similar work and earnings patterns.

A Pew study recently reported that wives earn more than their husbands in 22% of U.S. couples. But heterogamous cohabiting couples are more equal than married ones. That is, men and women in these couples are more likely to have similar earnings, and they’re’ less likely to have big gaps between  partners. Here is the breakdown from the 2009 Current Population Survey:

Source: My graph from CPS data.

The biggest gap is at the far left of the graph — where married men earn $50,ooo+ more than their female partners at 2.6-times the rate of cohabiting men. But the cohabitors are more likely to have gaps in the $10,000-$29,000 range, so if these are younger couples without kids, they might be just starting to grow their gender gaps (aw, how cute!) along with their (his) careers.

One other thing to watch out for in these comparisons is that cohabiting couples are poorer altogether. A very nice factsheet on trends in cohabitation from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research shows that college graduates have much lower cohabitation rates than those with fewer years of education.

A final caveat, suitable for a mish-mash post on cohabitation and inequality — cohabiting couples are diverse, incompletely identified, and institutionally ambiguous — for example, more than 1-in-4 unmarried women who have babies are cohabiting. Generalizers, beware.

*Hamplova, Dana, and Celine Le Bourdais. “One pot or two pot strategies? Income pooling in married and unmarried households in comparative perspective.Onepottwo” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 40.3 (Summer 2009): 355(34).


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Cohabitation’s neotraditional turn

A sudden, large jump in the number of cohabiting couples.

A new analysis from Rose Kreider at the Census Bureau shows a sudden, large jump in the number of (heterogamous) cohabiting couples, including an unusually large number of couples with only one member employed.

Defining, identifying and measuring unmarried cohabitation — an old hobby of mine — is messy business. The Census Bureau’s measurement approach has changed a few times, most recently in 2007, when they found a way to count people living as unmarried partners in someone else’s home. But there was no method change from 2009 to 2010, and the numbers show an unmistakable jump:

Source: My graph from the new report and historical trends.

As you can see, although two-earner couples are still the most common, more than half of the increase last year was in couples with only one earner — and the greatest proportional increase was among those with neither employed. Rose’s suspicion is that the recession — unemployment, foreclosures, insecurity, etc. — is squeezing more people into the decision to move in together.

The innovative way she came up with to look for that was to isolated those couples that were just formed — that is, where someone was living with no partner in one year but with a partner the next year. This shows an even larger jump in the proportion of couples in which only one member is employed. (And her statistical tests showed that the new couples were more likely to have only one earner than the already-existing couples.)

Some cohabitation looks like carefree, decadent, Swedish-style have-it-all-ism. But in the U.S. it’s often about people making ends meet. These relationships are notoriously unstable. Past experience suggests that, when cohabitors marry, they are more likely to divorce — unless they were engaged at the point they moved in together.

So is it good news or bad news? At the extremes, these financial-crisis cohabs might be both good survival strategies and/or relationship time-bombs. In any event, by my calculations, it will be seen as bad news by approximately 38% of poll-participating Americans.


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Your family, immediately

Welcome to the United States. Where we know what a family is, and is not.

“Whether you are a visitor to the United States or U.S. citizen,” we are told, “each individual arriving into the United States must complete one or more of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) entry forms.” In particular, if you are a U.S. citizen you will be asked to complete form 6059B. (And no, if you’re wondering, there is no form 6059A in existence, as far as we know.)

Actually, not everyone has to complete one, but rather “one responsible family member,” since “ONE written declaration per family is required.” Instructions available online clarify that CBP means “immediate family.”

Which brings us to the “interesting family sociology experience” one of this blog’s informants had at the border recently.

My cohabiting girlfriend and I were returning from… Since we packed all of our stuff mixed together in our two bags (clothes, stuff we bought, etc.) we thought it was a good idea to only fill out one customs form. The form said that if you are a “family traveling together” [more or less verbatim -pnc] you only need to fill out one form, and so we thought, “Hey let’s be a family.”

Why not? In the U.S. cohabiting-but-not-married couples often think of themselves as “common law” couples and describe themselves as married — which authorities often implicitly allow. And couples may also be “domestic partners” or in “civil unions” in some states and countries, regardless of marital status.

But is that a family? It’s not according to official economics, which assumes people share expenses — and thus poverty status — only if married (according to unverified self-report) or related by birth or adoption. On the other hand, a divorced parent traveling with his kids would naturally report them as a “family” even if they don’t live together.

And the federal government will soon allow people in homogamous couples to take Family and Medical Leave Act time off work to care for their children, even if not biologically related or adopted.

Federal law does not recognize same-sex relationships. But Labor Department lawyers have concluded that people in such relationships may nevertheless qualify for family and medical leave when they act as parents, sharing the care and support of a child.

So the unmarried couple arriving at the airport has a point…

So we get up to the agent to process us and hand him our forms. He said, “I see here it says you’re a family traveling together”. We replied, “yes, we live together and have been traveling for 3 weeks; we packed all of our stuff in the same bags”. His next question: “are you married” – response “no, we live together”. Then he yelled at us extremely loudly: “what about being a family do you not understand; you know I can haul you in for lying to a border agent and saying you’re a family when you’re not.” I think I was wise to not point out that family was not defined on the form (or anywhere) and that I would love the official customs and border patrol definition of a family. We just said sorry, reiterated that we were traveling together, fumbled a bit and were eventually let through.

What if they together cared for a child who was not traveling with them? Would that make them a family? And anyway, what difference does any of this make for customs, when the purpose of the form is to

provid[e] basic information about who you are [also on your passport -pnc] and what you are bringing into the country, such as agricultural products and whether or not you have visited a farm prior to traveling to the United States.

The recognition of dominant family norms requires countless small acts of deference, much more frequent than formal declarations and proof. But when the center is not holding — as it  isn’t — then our beleaguered authorities will instead find themselves encountering countless small acts of defiance. All they had to do was say they were married.

The (not-married) secretary of Homeland Security shakes down some border agents.

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Cohabitation, engaged and not

A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics has been received as evidence that “cohabitation has little effect on marriage success.” On the other hand, it also has been received as “merely” confirming that “No family change has come to the fore in modern times more dramatically, and with such rapidity, as heterosexual cohabitation outside of marriage.”

Using data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, the report analyzed 10-year survival trajectories of marriages according to whether the partners cohabited before marrying. The overall finding was very little difference in marriage survival. However, there was a difference among cohabitors — between those who were engaged when they started living together and those who weren’t.

Source: My graph from NCHS reportNote: I averaged the survival rates reported by male and female respondents.

Seems we can’t say much about what cohabitation itself does to impact marriage survival. But the kind of commitment people make before they move in together could make a difference. So this might just be an indicator of the strength of pre-marriage commitment couples have (or something else about the nature of their relationships).

Striking as its presence has become on the demographic palette, cohabitation has been hard to study, because although it precedes more marriages, it’s a state most people don’t stay in for long, and they get into for very different reasons, in different contexts. That also means this Pew question (from the USA Today story) — about “more people living together without getting married” — is only getting at some of the phenomenon.


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