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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