Marriage and The Welfare of Children

A report out last week noted that kids being raised in two-parent families are increasingly being raised by unmarried parents.   Indeed,

American children are more likely to have parents who never married than parents who are divorced.

That is one finding in the latest report from the National Marriage Project, which is based at the University of Virginia and which conducts research on  marriage and family in the United States. Specifically, the report says, 42 percent of children have lived with cohabiting parents by age 12, while only 24 percent have lived with a parent who had divorced.

The underlying phenomena here is that more and more couples who have children are not getting (or have not gotten) married. 

There relationship between children and marriage is something that’s been discussed on this blog many times.   There are so many different facets to consider.   For instance, kids raised outside of married families include both  children of single parents and children of two unmarried parents.  Those are quite different circumstances that  might raise different concerns.   I think the study here is focused on the latter–the number of children being raised by unmarried (but coupled) parents.

Additionally the category “unmarried parents” include parents who would like to marry and cannot as well as those who affirmatively and deliberately choose not to marry and those who do not marry without making such a conscious choice.   Here, too, those subcategories may be markedly different.  In particular, there are some significant number of lesbian and gay couples raising children who would like to get married and thus may have more in common with married heterosexual couples than with other unmarried couples.   (In general the issues of access to marriage for same-sex couples and parenting are entwined in interesting and important ways.)

But let’s go back to the point made (I think) in the quote above:  If you consider only couples with kids, more and more of them are unmarried couples.    What are we to think about that?   Well, this discussion in today’s NYT Room for Debate offers a number of different possibilites.   (Notice that the URL, which invokes the image of shot-gun weddings?)   It’s worth reading all the views offered partly because they rehearse some important points about correlation/causation and what we can learn from statistics.

It seems to me that most everyone agrees that where children are being raised by couples (a qualification most of the authors omit), they are better off being raised by stable rather than unstable couples.   So far that doesn’t seem a contentious claim.   What’s questionable is the relationship between marriage and stability.  Again, I think everyone agrees that there is something of a selection effect.  What that means is that couples that choose to marry are self-selected–marriage isn’t required, it is chosen.  And those couples who make that choice are more likely to be stable couples in the first place.  To put this slightly differently, those couples raising children that are unmarried include a higher percentage of unstable couples in the first place.

(Here’s a place to go back to the complex nature of the “unmarried couple” category, though.  Some couples would like to marry (and hence, are more like the couples choosing to marry) but cannot.)

This all comes down to correlation vs. causation.   Marriage may correlate to stability because of other factors that lead stable couples to marry.  Can we say that marriage causes (or enhances) stability?  And if so, does that mean we should promote marriage as a way to benefit children?  Should we be alarmed at the rising number of children in unmarried two-parent families?   And if so, what should we do about it?

All good questions to consider and it’s worth reading the views expressed in Room for Debate.



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