- In the U.S., disadvantaged kids have come to experience more relationship transitions and their associated costs. Tweet This
- While children certainly benefit from relationship transitions that remove them from abuse or out of poverty, the evidence shows that kids who experience relationship churning typically pay a price. Tweet This
I’m teaching a course at Georgetown this semester called "Family Diversity in America." This week, my students are writing a short paper where they have to explain either how low incomes contribute to disadvantageous family situations, or how disadvantageous family situations contribute to low incomes. Heather Rackin and Christina Gibson-Davis would easily have gotten an "A" on my assignment because their recent study in the Journal of Marriage and Family highlights one of the mechanisms through which today’s family patterns result in greater economic difficulties: cohabitation. Rackin and Gibson-Davis explain how the rise in cohabitation has disadvantaged children of lower and moderately-educated mothers more than children whose mothers have a college degree.
The authors use a term to describe a large volume of relationship turnovers that is fairly common in the academic literature: “churning,” which means lots of entrances and exits. I first learned of the term in the context of investments: an investment advisor who encourages you to change your market positions frequently can be suspected of wanting to benefit from churning, that is, in financial terms, to profit from the transaction fees themselves. While children certainly benefit from relationship transitions that remove them from abuse or lift them out of poverty, the evidence shows that kids who experience relationship churning typically pay a price (e.g., academic, economic, psychological, behavioral). Kids are not a party that pockets transaction fees.
What has happened over time in the U.S. is that disadvantaged kids have come to experience more relationship transitions and their associated costs. This is what we call diverging destinies: when socioeconomically disadvantaged kids are more likely to have experiences that impoverish—they started out behind richer kids, and their destinies diverged further because their family transitions tended to cost them, while richer kids were more likely to benefit from stability. If you were assigned the paper for my class, you would have to decide whether to write about how lower-income families face many barriers to stable marriage or how breaking up and re-forming families has costs of its own (e.g., lost economies of scale from break-ups or gained stress from forming complex families).
Both positions can be supported by hard evidence. Rackin and Gibson-Davis also do not cast this question as an either/or, but the evidence they provide supports the idea that increased latitude in family structure—the freedom to choose marriage or cohabitation (and to get out of either)—has changed the lives of advantaged children relatively little, while resulting in less stable family lives for children whose mothers have not completed a college degree. The Great Depression of the 1930s didn’t cause this kind of class divergence in family patterns because partnering options were much more socially constrained than they are today. We celebrate individual choice, but we cringe at the evidence that a wider range of choices has disproportionately hurt poor children.
We celebrate individual choice, but we cringe at the evidence that a wider range of choices has disproportionately hurt poor children.
Cohabitation would not have contributed to diverging destinies if it had become more stable as it became part of mainstream American family life. Rackin and Gibson-Davis’s data, instead, show that the break-up rates of cohabiting unions with children have remained largely unchanged over time (at least so far). The rate of churning hasn’t increased, but the proportion of children exposed to cohabitation—a less stable institution than marriage, even when children are present—has grown enormously. Among children born between 1985-1989, 13% experienced cohabitation during the first five years of their life, but by 2005-2010, that share had risen to 33%.
To be sure, cohabitation has become more common among the advantaged, but Rackin and Gibson-Davis showed that the modest increase in exposure to cohabitation among children born to mothers with four-year college degrees was offset by marriages becoming slightly more stable, resulting in no net change in transitions for children of more educated mothers. In contrast, children born to lower and moderately-educated mothers experienced more transitions because of far greater growth in their exposure to cohabitation. Remaining a single mother isn’t easy, but neither is churning.
One final technical note. Although I clearly applaud Rackin and Gibson-Davis for providing this class-based lens to understand change over time in children’s family stability, I am convinced their analysis underestimates the difference between cohabitation churning and marital churning. Here’s why: in the study, children who experienced marriage at any point during the first five years of their lives had all of their mother’s transitions in and out of any kind of union during that period count toward the marital churning rate (except the transition from cohabitation to marriage with the same partner: this did not change children’s living arrangements and was appropriately excluded). Children whose mothers were not married at any point between their birth and their fifth birthday had all of their mother’s relationship transitions count toward the cohabitation churning rate. That means that the marital churning rate is inflated by transitions in and out of cohabitation, but the cohabitation churning rate is unaffected by transitions in and out of marriage.
Some of the modest convergence between cohabitation and martial churning rates among low and moderately-educated women described in the study might be an artifact of more cohabitations being included in the martial churning rate as cohabitation became more prevalent. In sum, the class-based differences in family stability may have even more to do with cohabitation than Rackin and Gibson-Davis’s analysis revealed.
Laurie DeRose is a Research Assistant Professor at the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park and a senior fellow with the Institute for Family Studies. She is also Director of Research for the World Family Map project.