Weathering the Great Recession: The Family Difference

Few indeed were the Americans not keenly aware of the financial distress consequent to the Great Recession beginning in late 2007 and lasting until mid-2009. Almost all American households suffered some loss as a result of this economic typhoon. However, in a newly completed study, researchers at Columbia and the University of Michigan convincingly establish that the nation’s married-couple households fared decisively better during this time of financial stress than did its cohabiting-couple households and its single-mother households. Indeed, this new study concludes that the Great Recession actually widened the already rather sizable economic gaps separating these three types of households, with sobering long-term consequences for children growing up outside of married-couple households.

To assess the impact of the Great Recession on differing family structures, the Columbia and Michigan scholars scrutinize data collected from a nationally representative sample of household data for 4,898 children born between 1998 and 2001 in 20 American cities of 200,000 or more.  These data reveal that even before the Great Recession, children living with married-couple families were in better economic circumstances than were children living with cohabiting parents or a single mother.   

More specifically, the data show that “home and car ownership varied enormously by relationship status”:  Among married-couple households, the researchers found that more than half (55%) owned their home, compared to just 17% of cohabiting-couple households and 10% of single-parent households. 

The data further show that the economic advantage married-couple households enjoyed over cohabiting-couple households and single-mother households grew significantly during the Great Recession.  Cohabiting-couple households and single-mother households are statistically overrepresented among those who were “the most vulnerable in the Great Recession.” The researchers report that, during the course of this recession, “cohabiting mothers . . . were more likely to experience a decline in the probability of home ownership as a result of the Great Recession; whereas . . . single mothers were more likely to no longer own a car.” The recession apparently did not hurt married-couple households in the same way: The researchers report that “married households . . . did not experience a change in these assets [i.e., home and auto ownership] during the Great Recession.” As a consequence, “the Great Recession likely exacerbated economic differences between these groups, rather than closing the gaps.”  

Commenting at greater length on the pattern they see in their data, the researchers assert that “the rise in the unemployment rate during the Great Recession may have increased household asset inequality across family structures . . . limiting economic mobility, and exacerbating the cycle of poverty.” 

What the researchers see in their data reflects not only the economic distress of cohabiting-couple and single-mother households during the late 1990s; unfortunately, these data portend a dark future for the children who experienced the Great Recession without married parents.  “The Great Recession,” the researchers suggest, “exacerbated differences for children who were born to single and cohabiting parents and compared to married parents—perhaps worsening their ‘diverging destinies’” in a way that will be manifest in “future inequality.”  

Given how loudly progressives proclaim their commitment to reducing economic inequality in society, readers of this study may wonder why these same progressives never say a word against nonmarital cohabitation, easy divorce, or out-of-wedlock child-bearing.

(Valentina Duque, Natasha V. Pilkauskas, and Irwin Garfinkel, “Assets among Low-Income Families in the Great Recession,” PLoS ONE 13.2: e0192370, Web.)