“No family change has come to the fore in modern times more dramatically, and with such rapidity, as heterosexual cohabitation outside of marriage,” writes David Popenoe, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Rutgers University and one of the preeminent family scholars in the country.

The latest release by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) merely confirms Professor Popenoe’s conclusion.  It reports that, in 2002, one in two women aged 15 to 44 has been in a cohabiting relationship, about a 10-percentage-point increase since 1995.  Among women aged 25 and older, more than 60 percent have ever cohabited.

Over the last few decades, the increase in cohabitation has contributed to the collapse of marriage and the steep rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing.  Between 1970 and 2008, the marriage rate fell by one-half, while the unwed birth rate rose from 11 percent to nearly 40 percent.  Already in 2001, more than one-half of the children born outside of marriage were to cohabiting parents.  Overall, two-fifths of all children will spend a portion of their childhood with an unmarried parent and his or her cohabiting partner.

The erosion of marriage and the upsurge in unwed childbearing can have lasting individual and social consequences.  As the NCHS report notes:

Research findings consistently document associations between formal marital status and well-being.  Married persons have generally better mental and physical health outcomes compared with unmarried persons.  Married persons also live longer, have higher rates of health insurance coverage, and lower prevalence of cardiovascular disease than unmarried person.

Furthermore, the “[r]esearch also indicates that marriage is positively associated with the health and well-being of children.  Children born to unmarried mothers are at greater risk than children born to married mothers for poverty, teen childbearing, poor school achievement, and marital disruption in adulthood.”

Notably, these adverse effects are not distributed equally and may continue intergenerational patterns.  As the NCHS study points out, the experience of cohabitation and marriage differ significantly by individuals’ educational level and their parents’ marital history.

For example:

  • Among women who dropped out of high school, only 49 percent are currently married, while 17 percent are in cohabiting relationships, compared to 63 percent and 5 percent, respectively, of college-educated women.
  • Married women who lived in intact families at age 14 are 40 percent more likely to reach their tenth year anniversary than peers from non-intact families (67 percent versus 48 percent, respectively).

The report also concludes that cohabitation tends to be short-lived, leading to a complete breakup or marriage.  For women, less than one-third of first cohabiting relationships last more than three years, and less than one-fifth more than five years.

While the majority (65 percent) of first-time cohabitors marry within five years, marriages preceded by cohabitation, particularly without engagement, are more likely to end in divorce within a decade, compared to first-time marriages that do not begin with premarital cohabitation.

Moreover, cohabitation is not the qualitative equivalent of marriage.  As the report notes, “[S]tudies have emerged that suggest that cohabitors do not show the same level of health benefits as married persons….and report lower levels of relationship quality and lower household incomes than married couples.”

Sadly, as Heritage research fellows Katherine Bradley and Robert Rector note, “[d]espite the fact that collapse of marriage is the primary cause child poverty and welfare dependence, the Obama administration plans to eliminate all federal activity designed to strengthen marriage,” including programs that have served to advance and encourage healthy marriages in low-income communities.