Federal Social Policy, Cohabitation,
Brookings Institution and Annie E. Casey Foundation
As the chapters in this volume amply demonstrate, family arrangements in the United States, like those in Europe, have changed dramatically. The trends are toward less marriage, more divorce, more illegitimacy, and more cohabitation.
Until recently, marriage rates had been in decline for nearly halfa century. In 1950,65.8% of all females over age 15 were married. The rate decreased steadily to 55.9% in 1994, at which point it increased slightly before dropping again. By 1998, the female marriage rate stood at 54.896, down by well over 15% since 1950 (US. Bureau of the Census, 1998).
One cause of the decline in marriage has been rising divorce rates. In 1950, only 2.4% of females over age 15 were divorced. By 1998, that rate had increased by more than a factor of4 to 10.2%, although the rate of increase slowed considerably starting in the 1980s (US. Bureau of the Census, 1998).
The propensity to have children did not decline apace with the propensity to be single. On the contrary, until very recently the birth rate to unmarried women had been increasing steadily since the beginning of World War 11. Between 1940 and 1994, the nonmarital birth rate rose from 14 per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15 to 44 to 46.9 per 1,000, the highest rate ever. Happily, after nearly six decades of relentless increases, the rate has now fallen in 4 of the last 5 years. Trends for the illegitimacy ratio (number of unwed births divided by number of total births) follow a similar pattern, although conspicuous increases do not begin until around 1960. Even so, like the illegitimacy rate, the illegitimacy ratio rose steadily until 1994, at which point nearly one third 0fU. S. children were born outside marriage, and then flattened out (Ventura & Bachrach, 2000).
Changes in the U. S. rate of cohabitation are covered well by Smock and Gupta (chap. 4, this volume). In 1990, about 3.5% of children were living in a household headed by cohabiting parents. This relatively low figure is misleading, however, because there is great churning among cohabiting households. As a result of this churning, Bumpass and Lu (2000) estimated that nearly 40% of children will spend part of their childhood in a cohabiting household.
Here then is the new family environment provided for children: about one third are born outside marriage, a little less than half will live through the divorce of their parents, and about 40% of all children will live with cohabiting parents. Many children experience two or more of these disruptive and difficult life events.