By John C. Meehling   |   October 29th, 2011

cohabitation_greatest_threat _childrens_future.jpgThink about this statement: “The rise of cohabitating households with children (where parents aren’t married, just living together) is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s lives in today’s families.”  That’s pretty strong stuff, but it’s exactly what a new research study concludes.  While divorce has been the leading cause of the breakdown of the family and marriage for the last 40 years, the study shows that divorce is no longer the leading cause.  The study shows that cohabitation is now the greatest threat to the welfare of children in the United States!

The August 2011 study was sponsored by the Center on Children and Families at Brookings and is entitled “The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America”. It was written jointly by two family scholars, one a conservative (W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project) and one a liberal (Andrew J. Cherlin, professor at John Hopkins University).

The study found the following: in affluent neighborhoods where many college-educated Americans live, marriage is alive and well and divorce has declined to levels not seen since the “divorce revolution” of the 1960’s.  In contrast, marriage and family stability have both been in decline in the kinds of neighborhoods that we used to call working-class, where large numbers of young adults who have completed high school but not college reside.

Researchers discovered that the breakup rate for parents with children under 12 who are cohabitating is 170 percent higher than it is for married parents.  Approximately 24% of kids born to married parents will see their parents divorce or separate by age 12, while 42% of kids will experience a parental cohabitation by age 12.  Further, the study shows that children in cohabitating households are three (3) times more likely to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused than children in intact biological married parent homes.  They are also significantly more likely to experience delinquency, drug use, and school failure.

What has caused Middle America to retreat from marriage over the last four decades?  Well, the study found that many realities are behind the shift.  First is the transformation of the U.S. economy.  As automation has increased and jobs have gone overseas, many moderately-educated Americans have been left with jobs that provide less stability and lower wages.  That has left moderately-educated young adults who don’t have great jobs to now view cohabitation as a viable living arrangement that requires less economic stability, less money to make it happen.  The study shows that these days cohabitation more often than not means a short-term relationship, simply because neither partner makes the same commitment as they would to a marriage.

The study also found that cultural causes are behind the devaluation of marriage by the moderately educated.  Changes in norms about sexual activity, the use of birth control, and the apparent fading of the stigma surrounding living together before marriage or of having a child outside of marriage have all greatly changed over the last 40 years.  Add to that the fact that family law has shifted away from the primacy of the marriage bond to the primacy of the parent-child relationship and to individual rights.  The rise of the “no-fault” divorce, like we have here in Ohio, and the increased push for unmarried fathers to, at least, support their children have also worked to chip away at the importance of marriage, the study found.

Finally, for the last 40 years, Middle America has moved away from organized religion.  Religious institutions used to foster higher-quality, stable relationships by providing norms, social networks and a sense of meaning.  The last four (4) decades has seen a much greater drop in church involvement among moderately-educated Americans than among the college-educated.  Taken together, all of these cultural and economic trends have made Middle Americans less likely to get and stay married.

After describing the problem, the authors of the study next listed the following six (6) ideas that might help strengthen marriage and family life in Middle America:  1.) Increase training for middle-skill jobs to assist moderately-educated young adults who would like to start families.  2.) In the same way that federal and state governments have conducted successful social marketing campaigns against smoking and drunk driving, government agencies to work to change cultural attitudes towards marriage and the family.  A campaign could be organized to encourage young adults to follow a “success sequence” characterized by finishing high school, getting a job, getting married, and then having children. 3.) Expanding the Child Tax Credit to $3000 per child and making it fully refundable.  4.) Expanding early childhood educational programs for the disadvantaged in order to seed long-term improvements in education and training.  5.) Consider reforming divorce laws (i.e. – mandatory one-year waiting period for couples with children, optional programs for couples who express an interest in reconciliation,  legal reforms that would allow judges to move away from “no fault” and factor in breaches of the marital contract in making determinations about child custody and property division).  6.) Reform the entire Earned Income Tax Credit benefit schedule to reduce/eliminate the loss of benefits for couples who marry.

Finally, the authors of Why Marriage Matters offer three conclusions about marriage and families today:

  1. An intact marriage between biological parents remains the “Gold Standard” for family life in the United States, and children are most likely to thrive economically, socially, and psychologically in this family form.
  2. Marriage is “an important public good” with a wide 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 poor, working class, and minority communities despite the fact that marriage has lost its value in these communities over the last four decades.

As a 67-year-old Family Law practice, the attorneys at Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues have witnessed, firsthand, just how the devaluation of marriage has adversely affected the welfare of children, parents, and our community as a whole. Unfortunately, we often see the cycle repeating itself from generation to generation.  What do you think is the solution?

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About The Author: John C. Meehling
Attorney John C. Meehling is a Family Law Attorney from Dayton, Ohio, and contributor to the Ohio Family Law Blog. Attorney Meehling recently joined the Dayton law firm of Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues on November. 1, 2010.

Cohabitation: The Greatest Threat to Your Children’s Future
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