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August 25, 2010

Column #1,565

Cohabitation: Largest Threat to Children

By Mike McManus

            The Institute for American Values issued a landmark report, “Why Marriage Matters, Third Edition” which states: “The rise of cohabitation is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s family lives.

            “In fact, because of the growing prevalence of cohabitation, which has risen fourteen-fold since 1970, today’s children are much more likely to spend time in a cohabiting household than they are to see their parents divorce.”

            The report has some good news about divorce:  “Children who are now born to married couples are actually more likely to grow up with both of their parents than were children born at the height of the divorce revolution,” says the report written by W. Bradford Wilcox who directs the National Marriage Project for the University of Virginia.

While 27% of children experienced a parental divorce if they were born in the late 1970s, only 23% of those born 20 years later live through a divorce.  (However, that’s triple the 8% divorce rate of kids born in Britain or France, and shatters 1 million U.S. kids annually.)

What’s worse: 42% of American children will endure the horror of living in a cohabiting family, almost double the percentage hurt by divorce.  Kids in cohabiting households “are markedly more likely to be physically, sexually and emotionally abused than children in both intact, married families and single-parent families.”   Some snapshots:

·         Teenagers from cohabiting families are 60% less likely to graduate from high school than those with married parents.

·         Children in cohabiting families are five times more likely “to experience depression, difficulty sleeping, feelings of worthlessness, nervousness and tension.”

·         Preschool children are 47.6 times more likely to die in a cohabiting household compared to those with married parents.

·         Daughters raised outside of intact marriages are three times more likely to be young, unwed mothers.


As recently as the 1970s, the vast majority of adult Americans were living in an intact

marriage and almost nine in ten children were born into married families. “No longer. Now, less than half of adults are married.”

            “This retreat from marriage has hit poor, working-class and minority communities with particular force,” while marriage trends of college educated, affluent Americans have taken a turn for the better. Nonmarital child-bearing soared more than six fold from 5% in 1982 to 34% in 2006-8 among white high school educated Americans.  By contrast, unwed births of college educated remained only 2% during these years, and divorce rates fell.

The report found this growing marriage gap troubling. “It leaves working-class and poor adults more distanced from an institution that has historically lent purpose, meaning, responsibility, mutual aid and a sense of solidarity to the lives of countless men and women.” And it leaves poorer children “doubly disadvantaged” with less family resources and fewer  married parents.

Sociologist Paul Amato states: “increasing marital stability to the same level as in 1980 is associated with a decline of nearly 500,000 children suspended from school, about 200,000 fewer children engaging in delinquency or violence, 250,000 fewer children receiving therapy… 80,000 fewer children thinking about suicide and about 28,000 fewer children attempting suicide.”

The report offers no answers, only questions: “How can communities be mobilized to promote a marriage-friendly culture?”

I have an answer.  I’ve helped more than 10,000 pastors join across denominational lines to make marriage a high priority, by creating Community Marriage Policies in 229 cities.  A study by the Institute for Research and Evaluation reported that in the first 114 cities, divorce rates fell 17.5% in seven years, cohabitation dropped by a third compared to control cities. Now marriage rates are rising. 

The Institute estimated that 31,000 to 50,000 marriages were saved from divorce by 2001.  With another decade in the original cities, and 229 cities now, perhaps 100,000 divorces were averted.

Nearly a tenth of the cities cut divorce rates in half, such as Modesto, CA which signed the first Community Marriage Policy in 1986.  Its divorce rate has been nearly 50% lower for a decade. Marriages have doubled from 1,300 a year to 2,600. With more kids in stable homes, teen pregnancies fell 30% in ten years and school dropouts, by 19%.

Community Marriage Policies can “promote a marriage friendly culture.” 

More is needed.  Government inadvertently subsidizes cohabitation. A woman with an unwed birth gets welfare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. as if she were bringing up the child alone.  But most are cohabiting, and have the benefit of his income plus taxpayer income.    If she marries him, she loses subsidies.

My solution: If they marry, let them keep the subsidies for two years, then taper off.  More will marry, the best answer for everyone, and government costs will drop in time

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