- A new study finds that the behavior of cohabiting and married parents is the same when it comes to the time spent caring for children. Tweet This
- Children born to cohabitating couples are more likely to get less parental time due to union dissolution. Tweet This
- A new analysis establishes that cohabitation doesn’t decrease parental time investment in children while the parents are still together. Tweet This
My most recent post in this space addressed why married couples remain more likely to pool their incomes than cohabiting couples, even after a range of statistical adjustments that take account of differences other than legal status (income, commitment, etc.). It is probably because inquiries into “the cohabitation gap” fascinate me that an article published in the Hitotsubashi Journal of Social Studies made it onto my radar. The question researchers Hiromi Ono and Hiroshi Ono examined involved the childcare time gap: namely, why children of married parents get more parental time than children of cohabiting parents.
It is easy to understand how children of single parents, on average, get less parental time than children of partnered parents. Living with your child makes it easier to spend time with them. But among couples who live with their shared children, it is less obvious why the legal status of the parents’ partnership matters, i.e., why children of married parents have an advantage over children of cohabiting parents when it comes to parental time.
This cohabitation gap could matter. The importance of the other cohabitation gaps kind of depends on personal values. The marital stability premium associated with marrying directly compared to cohabiting first is of greater consequence to those who place a high value on stability. Similarly, that married individuals exhibit more gender traditionalism than cohabitants in their division of labor is of greater consequence to those who place a high value on gender equality. In contrast, parental investment in children matters to nearly everyone. Children that get more parental time have fewer behavioral problems, and educational time spent with parents improves children’s cognitive functioning more than other educational time.
For a cohabitation gap with such important consequences, the question of whether union status causes the differences is not simply academic. Across countries, more educated parents spend more time with children. Also, in most countries, there is pattern of disadvantage in which cohabitants with children generally have less education than married people with children. If all of the differences in parental time between children reared in cohabitation and children reared in marriage were simply because of the educational differences between their parents—that is, if children reared in cohabitation received less parental time just because their parents were less educated—it wouldn’t really be a cohabitation gap. It would just be an education gap. Similarly, if married parents have older children, and parents generally spend more time with younger children, there wouldn’t really be a cohabitation gap in parental time, just a cohabitation gap in children’s ages.
Ono and Ono’s analysis showed that the cohabitation gap in childcare time could, in fact, be explained away by statistically accounting for differences in the characteristics of married and cohabiting parents. This means that the behavior of cohabiting and married parents is the same when it comes to the time spent caring for children.
My biggest criticism of the way that Ono and One present their analysis is simply that they seem to make too much of the institutional differences between Sweden and the U.S., the countries they compared. The countries are very different. Sweden is a country where the pattern of disadvantage associated with cohabitation is quite modest: Where educational differences between cohabitants and marrieds are relatively small, they cannot contribute much to the childcare time gap. The Swedish government also provides similar resources to cohabiting and married couples, so Swedish cohabiting parents would not have economic disadvantage caused by, say, their inability to file a joint income tax return.1 Finally, couples with more than one child spend more time caring for their children, so again, the cohabitation gap in childcare time should be less in Sweden where more cohabitants have multiple children together than in the United States.
None of these points are off base, but the cohabitation gap in childcare time ended up being insignificant in both places. Granted, it didn’t take accounting for education and family composition and more to make an apparent gap go away for Sweden like it did for the U.S., but the authors made it sound like Sweden created conditions to make the childcare time gap disappear. In fact, union status didn’t matter for childcare time in either country.
Unfortunately, this analysis only establishes that cohabitation doesn’t decrease parental time investment in children while the parents are still together. There is still a cohabitation gap in parental union stability. This means that children born to cohabitating couples are more likely to get less parental time due to union dissolution. We know that parental time matters for children in the present, plus it conditions the human capital they accumulate on the way to adulthood. It is good news that children don’t get less parental time when living with cohabiting parents, but children born to cohabiting parents do get less parental time, on average, throughout childhood, because fewer of their parents stay together.
Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.
1. Sweden taxes individuals as individuals, regardless of union status.