Academic journal article Demographic Research

Cohabitation, Nonmarital Childbearing, and the Marriage Process

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Cohabitation, Nonmarital Childbearing, and the Marriage Process

Article excerpt

Abstract

Past work on the relationship between cohabitation and childbearing shows that cohabitation increases fertility compared to being single, and does so more for intended than unintended births. Most work in this area, however, does not address concerns that fertility and union formation are joint processes, and that failing to account for the joint nature of these decisions can bias estimates of cohabitation on childbearing. For example, cohabitors may be more likely to plan births because they see cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing; alternatively, they may have an underlying higher propensity to marry than their single counterparts. In this paper, I use a modeling approach that accounts for the stable, unobserved characteristics of women common to nonmarital fertility and union formation as a way of estimating the effect of cohabitation on nonmarital fertility net of cohabitors' potentially greater likelihood of marriage. I distinguish between intended and unintended fertility to better understand variation in the perceived acceptability of cohabitation as a setting for childbearing. U.S. data show that accounting for unmeasured heterogeneity reduces the estimated effect of cohabitation on intended childbearing outside of marriage by up to 50%, depending on race/ethnicity. These results speak to cohabitation's evolving place in the family system, suggesting that cohabitation may be a step on the way to marriage for some, but an end in itself for others.

1. Introduction

Childbearing outside of marriage in the United States has risen dramatically over the past four decades, from 5% of all births in 1960 to 36% in 2004 (Ventura and Bachrach 2000, Hamilton et al. 2005). Along with increases, there have been important changes in the characteristics of nonmarital childbearing. Unmarried mothers tend to be older now than in the past, more likely to have other children, and more likely to be living with a partner (Wu, Bumpass, and Musick 2001). Cherlin (2001:391) notes that "these facts have not been digested by policy-makers and social commentators, nearly all of whom write and speak as if the 'out-of-wedlock birth problem' were entirely an issue of single women, many of them young." Treating nonmarital childbearing as a "problem" of young, single women obscures changes in unmarried parenthood and misrepresents the family contexts of a growing share of children. Indeed, 40-50% of nonmarital births in the 1990s were to cohabiting couples (Bumpass and Lu 2000, Carlson, McLanahan, and England 2004), and much of the growth in nonmarital childbearing between the 1980s and 1990s was due to cohabiting two-parent families (Raley 2001).

The relationship between cohabitation and fertility is critical to understanding childbearing outside of marriage and to assessing where cohabitation fits into the family system. Researchers have debated the role of cohabitation, asking whether it serves primarily as a precursor to marriage or an alternative to marriage (for reviews, see Seltzer 2000, Smock 2000). Given the centrality of children to definitions of marriage and the family, examining the extent to which cohabitation is a common, accepted arrangement for childbearing is one way of addressing this question. In this vein, past work has compared the reproductive behavior of married, single, and cohabiting women, finding that the fertility patterns of cohabitors lie somewhere between the single and married (Bachrach 1987, Raley 2001). Cohabitation may increase the fertility of unmarried women in a number of ways: by providing a suitable alternative to marriage for childbearing, by increasing sexual contact, or by selecting on individuals most likely to marry. Studies of fertility intentions show that cohabitors have higher rates of intended births than their single counterparts, lending some support to the notion that cohabitation provides a suitable context for childbearing (Manning 2001, Musick 2002). …

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