The number of American couples who are cohabiting and having children without getting married has skyrocketed since the 1970s, and this spells doom for the American family, according to the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values. In their new report (which is available for purchase, should you wish to shell out $6.50), these scholars claim that we shouldn’t just be afraid for the children of divorce. Now we need to worry about the children of cohabiters, or perhaps more colorfully, people who are living in sin.
According to the CDC, 42% of children have lived with cohabiting parents by age 12. Another statistic that NMP scholars find deeply troubling is the number of women who have children with different men: more than 25%. Socioeconomic status seems to be an influential part of the equation. Lower-income couples are much less likely to get married, and Americans with only a high school diploma are more likely to cohabit than those with a college degree.
“There’s a two-family model emerging in American life,” explained W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. “The educated and affluent enjoy relatively strong, stable families. Everyone else is more likely to be consigned to unstable, unworkable ones.”
In the eyes of the researchers, this is disastrous for children who are unfortunate enough to grow up without married parents. According to psychologist John Gottman, these children are subject to “aggression” and “depression.” For the researchers, this is clearly tied to their parents’ marital status. If only more couples would get married and stay married, all of our problems would be solved!
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As marriage historian (I didn’t know there was such a thing either) Stephanie Coontz told NPR, “Cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing is as much a symptom of the instability of children’s lives as it is a cause of it.” In fact, she said, part of the problem could be that people think that marriage itself is the root of family harmony, not the myriad of factors that go into raising well-balanced children. They may, as a result, rush into relationships which then fall apart.
The moral of the story, once again, is that marriage promotion is not the answer. While Wilcox and his colleagues may want to push a moral agenda, the real problem is that children who grow up with fewer resources are more likely to experience instability. The solution is not to push marriage on more couples, it’s to make sure that mothers are not working two jobs to support their kids, that daycare is available and that women have resources if they are in an abusive relationships. What matters is whether parents have the right tools to raise their children. And many people in this country don’t. Their marital status is entirely beside the point.
Photo from guisse95 via flickr.