What Are the Choices for Low-Income Families?:
Cohabitation, Marriage, and Remaining Single
The Pennsylvania State University
National Institute for Child Health and Human Development
As cohabitation becomes increasingly prevalent, social scientists are struggling to understand its meaning and role in American family life. Current estimates indicate that there are about 4.9 million cohabiting households and that 568 of first unions are preceded by cohabitation (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Cnsper & Cohen. 2000). Smock and Gupta (chap. 4, in this volume) provide an interesting and timely review on the nature, frequency, and implications of cohabitation for Pamily structure and marriage in the United States and Canada. They argue that the central debate about the significance of cohabitation is whether it is a threat to legal marriage. Overall, they conclude that "cohabitation is posing an increasingly potent challenge to marriage as a form ofcoresidential, conjugal union” (11. 74).
We focus on this issue—whether cohabitation poses a threat to marriage— within the context of economically disadvantaged families. As several researchers have noted, cohabitation and marriage rates vary dramatically by socioeconomic status. Cohabitation appears to be negatively correlated with both educntion (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Manning & Lichter, 1996); Thornton, Axinn, & Teachman. 1995) and income (Casper & Bianchi, in press), whereas marriage is more likely for economically advantaged individuals (Lichter, LeClere, & McLaughlin, 1991; Mare & Winship, 1991; Oppenheimer, Kalmijn, & Lim, 1997). In particular. economic circumstances appear a powerful predictor of marriage. For example, marriage rates for young Black men (aged 1 X to 29) vary widely by earnings. While over half of Black men in this age group who earn $20,000 or more a year are murried, the rates plummet for those earning less—only 7% earning between $1,000 and $5,000 annually are married (Sum & Fogg, 1990).
It has been argued that cohabitation can pose a threat to marriage in one of two ways. First, cohabitation can threaten marriage by reducing the number of individuals who marry. That is, the option to cohabit could funnel some people out of marriage and into cohabitation. We evaluate this argument by focusing on the union formation decisions of poor, single mothers. Second, cohabitation nxty threaten mrtrriage by decreasing the stability afforded by marriage. Because co-