The Double Curse of Cohabitation

Given the dramatic rise in the prevalence of premarital cohabitation, it comes as no surprise that an increasing percentage of cohabiting couples in the United States (about 40 percent) are also cohabiting parents. But just as “shacking up” diminishes the prospects of marital success, having a baby while cohabiting exerts a toll on the child’s future that is difficult to shake. Indeed, a study by Kammi Schmeer of Ohio State University finds that when parents are married at time of childbearing, that sanctioned bond represents a significant health advantage to the child at age 5. On the other hand, when childbirth occurs to cohabiting parents, even if the illicit union remains “stable” for the next five years, the effects on early childhood health are just as deleterious as parental separation or divorce and just as deleterious as if the couple had dissolved their illicit union. Looking at longitudinal data representing 2,160 children born between 1998 and 2000 to married or cohabiting parents from the Fragile Families and Child Well Being Study, the Buckeye sociologist measured the health effects of having married parents at birth, relative to having cohabiting parents at birth, as well as the differences between the two union statuses by their stability between birth and age 5. Controlling for “key confounders,” or characteristics that are usually related to children living in cohabiting households (like low birth weight and maternal health at birth), Schmeer found that children born to married parents were significantly more likely to be in “excellent,” rather than “very good,” health at age 5 (p<.05). Furthermore, she found that children with stably married parents during their first five years of life enjoyed a significantly lower risk of being in the poorest health category than their peers living in stably cohabiting-parent households (p<.05). Not only was there a clear health disadvantage, at age 5, to being born to coha
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