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