The other day I complained about the low value added from a commercial marriage soothsayer. Making predictions about marriage in the short run isn’t very important (because short-run change is modest), and in the long run is much more complicated than the simple models I used. One very important complication that we in the United States are ill-prepared to deal with is cohabitation, raised in a comment yesterday by Gosta Esping-Andersen.
After a scare last fall over funding for the marital events and marital history questions in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), the government decided to keep the questions (I wrote about it here, here, and here). With these questions, we know a lot about the timing of marriage and divorce, in addition to births, from the biggest annual survey we have. However, we don’t know much about cohabitation. We know if people are cohabiting as “unmarried partners,” but only if they are doing so in a home owned or rented by one of the partners. And we don’t know how long they’ve been living together, or if someone used to cohabit but no longer does (cohab breakups aren’t recorded like divorces).
This isn’t so bad in the U.S., compared to some other countries where cohabitation tends to me more serious and long-lasting, but it still is a significant blind spot in our demographic data system. For example, according to an analysis of data from the National Survey of Family Growth (much smaller and less frequent than the ACS), by the Nation Center for Family and Marriage Research, the majority of unmarried women having births (57%) are in cohabiting relationships, which amounts to a quarter of all births. The proportion of single new-mothers living with someone is higher among Whites and Hispanics (two-thirds) than among Blacks (one-third).
Ultimately, the reason we care whether parents are married, or cohabiting, is because we want to know who’s going to take care of the children, and pay for them, and what their developmental environment will be. Marital status or living arrangements are a rough way to measure these things.
Anyway, what role does cohabitation play in the decline in marriage? If people were just redefining their commitments, choosing cohabitation instead of marriage, that would mean something different than if they were just spending more of their lives truly single.
Frustratingly, the best annual data on cohabitation now comes from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), rather than the ACS, which means it’s not paired with the marital events and history questions. In the CPS, since 2007 (a change I discussed here), we know if someone is cohabiting even if the couple is living in someone else’s household (such as a parent or roommate). So here’s a look at where cohabitation fits in to the marriage trends for young adults, from 2007 to 2014 (for these trends, I counted people as married only if they were not separated, and I counted people as cohabiting if they said they were living with a boyfriend or girlfriend even if they were married but separated):
The figure shows that, even with the increase in cohabitation for 25-34-year-olds, singleness is still increasing. This is especially true for those in the peak marriage age of 25-29, for whom marriage has decreased 9% while cohabitation has increased only 4%. Strikingly, it also shows that cohabitation now is more common among 20-24-year-olds than marriage; I don’t remember noticing that before.*
So, at least in these broad strokes, cohabitation doesn’t account statistically for recent declines in marriage. But it is important: if you just focus on marriages, you miss the trend toward higher rates of cohabitation among unmarried people.
Here are some figures showing the relative prevalence of cohabitation versus marriage, by sex, age, and year, using the same data and definitions as above. Restricting the data to those who are married or cohabiting, these figures show the percentage cohabiting, so over 50% means more people are cohabiting than are married (spouse present). Green is more cohabitation, red is less. Moving down the figures is time, and to the right is age, so older people are more likely to be married, and cohabitation increased from 2007 to 2014. By 2014, cohabiting was more common for men up to age 25, for women up to age 23. Because the samples are relatively small the estimates bounce around, so I smoothed the figures by averaging adjacent cells.