Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Cohabitation and Children's Economic Well-Being

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parental Cohabitation and Children's Economic Well-Being

Article excerpt

The rise in children's experience in single-parent families is well documented. However, it remains unknown whether their unmarried parents are living alone or coresiding with unmarried partners. Perhaps more importantly, it is unknown how the economic contributions of parent's cohabiting partners influence the economic well-being of children. Using data from the recently released 1990 decennial census PUMS, we provide national estimates of the percentage and socioeconomic characteristics of U.S. children living in cohabitingcouple families. Our results reveal that 2.2 million children (3.5%) reside in cohabiting-couple families and that racial differences are substantial. Roughly I in 7 children in unmarried-parent families also live with their parent's unmarried partner. Although these children have two potential caretakers and economic providers, our results indicate that parental resources fall short of their counterparts in married-couple families. A cohabiting partner's economic contribution results in a 29% reduction in the proportion of children in cohabiting-couple families living in poverty, but still they fare poorly in comparison with children in married-couple families.

Key Words: children's well-being, cohabitation, family structure, poverty.

The transformation of the American family, fueled by continuing high rates of divorce and unmarried childbearing, is inextricably linked to the changing living arrangements and economic status of children (Bianchi, 1990; Duncan & Rodgers, 1991; Eggebeen & Lichter, 1991; Hernandez, 1993). The rise in single-parent families has adversely affected the economic well-being of American children (Eggebeen & Lichter, 1991). Yet previous studies have failed to explicitly consider parental cohabitation in evaluating the living arrangements and economic well-being of children in single-parent families. Children are increasingly likely to be born into a cohabiting couple and raised by a parent or by parents who are cohabiting (Bumpass & Raley, 1995; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). It appears that cohabitation has become an important family form to consider in understanding children's economic well-being.

In this article we evaluate how estimates of children's living arrangements (e.g., percentage living in single-mother families) and economic well-being (e.g., poverty) are altered if cohabiting couples are viewed both conceptually and analytically as two-parent families. Our research addresses three specific questions with data from the recently released 5% Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) of the 1990 decennial census. First, we provide benchmark estimates of the number and proportion of children living in married-couple, cohabiting-couple, and single-parent families for specific racial and ethnic groups (i.e., Blacks, nonLatino Whites, Asians, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans). Second, we contrast the socioeconomic circumstances (e.g., parent's education, income, or employment status) of children living in cohabiting unions with those living in families headed by married couples or single mothers. Are the socioeconomic characteristics of the parents of children living in cohabiting families akin to those of their counterparts in families headed by married couples or single parents? Third, we compare rates of poverty (as officially measured) with new estimates that treat children in cohabiting unions similarly to children in married-couple families. We ask how poverty rates are affected if we assume that children benefit from the income of the partner of their unmarried parent.


The complexity of children's family life is often ignored; most researchers simply distinguish between children living in two-parent and singleparent families. It is generally accepted that more refined definitions of two-parent families that differentiate between two-biological parent families and stepparent families are important (e. …

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