Discrimination against single parents has vast implications for their children

New data reveals that record numbers of babies are being born to cohabitating parents. So why is the government so biased against them?

Do you have to be married to be good parents? Photograph: Sharon Montrose/Getty Images

More 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 people.

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 unacknowledged.


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 college.

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 romantically.

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.