published Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Divorce no longer greatest threat

According to research just released by the National Marriage Project, divorce is no longer the greatest threat to family stability and child well-being. It has been replaced by the rise of cohabiting households with children, which has been linked to increased instability in children's lives and to a range of negative outcomes for children.

"Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions From the Social Sciences," is co-authored by 18 family scholars from leading institutions including the University of California at Berkeley, the Brookings Institution, the University of Chicago, Penn State, the National Marriage Project, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas. It found that while the divorce rate for married couples with children has returned almost to the levels seen before the divorce revolution kicked in during the 1970s, family instability is on the rise for American children as a whole.

"This seems in part to be because more couples are having children in cohabiting unions, which are very unstable," said the report's lead author, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project.

"The report also indicates that children in cohabiting households are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems -- drug use, depression and dropping out of high school, compared to children in intact, married families."

Currently, 24 percent of the nation's children are born to cohabiting couples, which means that more children are born to cohabiting couples than to single mothers.

Other major findings

  • Children are now more likely to be exposed to a cohabiting union than to a parental divorce.

  • Children born to cohabiting unions are much more likely to experience a parental breakup compared to children born to married couples. The breakup rate is 170 percent higher for children born to cohabiting couples by the time a child is 12 years old.

  • Cohabiting unions are more dangerous for children. Federal data show that children are at least three times more likely to be physically, sexually or emotionally abused in cohabiting households, compared to children in intact, biological married parent homes. They are also significantly more likely to experience delinquency, drug use and school failure.

The report states that the nation's retreat from marriage has hit poor and working-class communities with a vengeance. Children from less educated homes have seen their family lives become increasingly unstable.

3 conclusions

Based on the new data, the authors offer these fundamental conclusions.

1 The intact, biological, married family remains the gold standard for family life in the United States. Children are most likely to thrive economically, socially and psychologically in this family form.

2 Marriage is an important public good. It is associated with a range of economic, health, educational and safety benefits that help local, state and federal governments serve the common good.

3 The benefits of marriage extend to the poor, working class and minority communities, despite the fact that marriage has weakened in these communities in the last four decades.

Healthy marriage is good for men, women, children, communities, corporations, educational institutions and society as a whole.

If you look at the facts, it is hard to dismiss the evidence. Are we as a country in denial about the effects of cohabitation on the family unit?

Julie Baumgardner is the president and executive director of First Things First. Contact her at julieb@firstthings.org.

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