babies are being born to unmarried, cohabitating parents in America
than ever before. This has some sociologists are worried. Will children
lose out on the benefits of living in a financially solid home? They
might, but there is a way to address that: stop biases against single
At the federal level alone, there are more than 1,000 laws that
benefit and protect only those people who are legally married, including
tax breaks and access to a spouse’s social security benefits.
There is also a vast array of ways in which single people are targets
of “singlism”, which is when you are stereotyped, stigmatized, and
discriminated against because you are single. For example, when I and
two fellow researchers asked rental agents about their preferences for
renting a property to various sets of applicants who were similar in
every way except for their marital status, we found that the agents
favored a married couple (chosen 61% of the time) over a cohabiting
couple (24%) or a pair of opposite-sex friends (15%). If married people
are getting better access to preferred properties, they may also be
getting more affordable properties.
The laws and practices that favor married people economically have
considerable implications for children - some grow up in less
economically secure households simply because of the marital status of
their parents. If our concern is truly with the well-being of children,
then we should fashion policies that help them directly, rather than
trying to coax or shame their parents into getting married and reaping
advantages that way.
The discussion about the increase in babies born to unmarried
cohabiting mothers has a whiff of the sentiment “well at least they are
not single mothers”. Yet the dire claims about the fate of single
parents’ children are often misrepresentations of the evidence, as I
found in my research for Singled Out. Even within particular types of
families, there are meaningful variations. We are sensitive to factors
such as education and economics, yet other considerations often go
In what is perhaps the most comprehensive investigation of the implications of different kinds of family structures for the well-being of teenagers, Thomas Deleire and Ariel Kalil studied more than 11,000 adolescents raised in ten different kinds of households, including, for example, households with married parents, biological cohabiting parents, single mothers (divorced, always-single, and cohabiting considered separately), divorced single mothers in multi-generational households, and always-single mothers in multigenerational households. Conventional wisdom would predict that the children of married parents would do well, and they did. But the children of divorced single mothers in multigenerational homes did just as well.
The children who did the best – even better than the children of
married parents – were the children of always-single mothers in
multigenerational homes. They were less likely to drink or smoke, more
likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to enroll in
Single-parent and cohabiting-parent households are just a few of the
many contemporary ways of living. Some of the 21st century innovations
in child-rearing are so new that we have little or no social science
research on the long-term implications. For example, the CoAbode website
offers single mothers and their children the opportunity to find other
compatible single-mother families with whom to share a home and a life.
Even more revolutionary are the adults who come together in parenting
partnerships to raise children, without committing to each other
Their children have two adults in their lives for the long haul. Will
it matter – for better or for worse – that the adults are not married
or even interested in any romantic involvement? We just don’t know.
What I think we can predict is that creative ways of living will continue to proliferate. Never again will huge swaths of the population follow the nuclear family path or any other predetermined road to the good life. We get to design our own life spaces.