Child Well-Being in Cohabiting Families
Susan L. Brown
Bowling Green State Uniersity
Cohabitation has fundamentally altered the meaning of family and the measures of family structure. Researchers can no longer rely on marital-based family classification schemes. The categories of married-couple families, remarried stepfamilies, and single-parent families mask substantial variation due to the proliferation of cohabitation. Most two-biological parent couples are married, but some are cohabiting. A considerable proportion of stepfamilies are formed through postmarital cohabitation, rather than remarriage. And, many single mothers and even more single fathers actually reside with cohabiting partners. Approximately 75% of children born to single mothers and 20% of children born to married mothers are expected to spend some time in a cohabiting family before age 16 (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Children will spend an increasing share of their childhoods in cohabiting unions and a decreasing share in marriages (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Clearly, research on family structure effects on children cannot afford to ignore the significance of cohabitation.
Manning (chap. 8, this volume) argues convincingly for distinguishing among children by both the biological status of the parent-child relationship and the marital status of the biological parent(s). These distinctions are complex and perhaps even somewhat tedious, but are necessary if one wishes to adequately capture the growing diversity of American families in research. In fact, further distinctions might be required for family-level analyses, including differentiating children in the household who are from prior unions versus children from the present union. And, there may be important differences between cohabiting stepfamilies that involve a nevermarried versus divorced parent. The role of nonresident fathers—whether they were cohabiting with the mother at the time of the child's birth or the child now resides with the mother and her cohabiting partner—largely has been neglected to date, but merits careful consideration as 40% of nonmarital births occur to cohabiting mothers and many children experience postmarital cohabiting stepfamilies following parental divorce (Bumpass & Lu, 2000).
Manning's review is exhaustive and provides a comprehensive examination of both the demography of children in cohabiting families and the effects of this living arrangement on a variety of child outcomes. As she notes, very little is known about the influence of cohabitation on children; research in this area is still emerging. The earliest study using national data on cohabiting children's outcomes was conducted by Thomson, Hanson, and McLanahan (1994), who found that