Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Child Health Disadvantage of Parental Cohabitation

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Child Health Disadvantage of Parental Cohabitation

Article excerpt

This study uses Fragile Families data (N = 2,160) to assess health differences at age 5 for children born to cohabiting versus married parents. Regression analyses indicate worse health for children born to cohabiting parents, including those whose parents stably cohabited, dissolved their cohabitation, and married, than for children with stably married parents. The findings also suggest that stable cohabitation is no better for child health than cohabitation dissolution. Child health is better among those whose cohabiting parents marry than for those whose parents remain stably cohabiting, which indicates a possible health advantage of parental marriage, even if it occurs after the child's birth.

Key Words: cohabitation, cohabiting couples with children, early childhood, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing, health, marital status.

Recent research and social policy have emphasized the importance of parents marrying for children's well-being, as a result of findings that children fare better in married, biologicalparent households than in other family structures (Hofferth, 2006) and that children have worse outcomes when living in cohabiting than in married-parent families (Brown, 2004). An important indicator of child well-being is heahh status, which may have important consequences for later health and socioeconomic status (Case, Fertig, & Paxson, 2005; Case & Paxon, 2006; Palloni, 2006). Although research has suggested that children's health is better in two-parent than in single-parent families (Wen, 2008), there is a dearth of research on the health consequences of having cohabiting versus married parents and on how stability and/or change in parental union status may be associated with health during early childhood.

This study aims to fill this gap in family structure research by assessing whether there is a child health disadvantage of parental cohabitation and whether stability or change in cohabiting parents' union status between birth and age 5 is associated with child health at age 5. In meeting this goal, three specific research questions are addressed: (a) Is parental cohabitation at birth associated with child health at age 5? (b) Are there health differences at age 5 between those children with cohabiting parents who dissolved their union and those with stably cohabiting parents? And (c)Are there health differences at age 5 between those children with cohabiting parents who got married and those with stably cohabiting parents? The data used to answer these questions come from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal study of children bom to married and unmarried parents in three major U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000. The focus on relatively disadvantaged urban families targeted by the Fragile Families study provides insight into whether family structure at birth is an important determinant of child health in this vulnerable population. Further, the information on prospective, longitudinal parental union status allows for an analysis of stability and change in parental union status during the first 5 years of the children's lives.

Child health status at age 5 is reported by the children's mothers and aims to capture the overall health status of children when other measures (e.g., diagnosed conditions) may not yet be apparent. In past research, parent-reported child health status has been associated with maternal health, family social and economic status, and health insurance status (Larson, Russ, Crall, & Halfon, 2008; Yoo, Slack, & HoIl, 2008). However, no study to date has explored the implications of parental cohabitation or key cohabitation transitions for overall health status in early childhood.

Assessing whether cohabiting and married parent households provide distinct contexts for the development of physical health during the first 5 years of life is critical for understanding the implications of current family structure trends in the United States. …

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