(April 2015) Increased childbearing outside marriage, more parents with children from more than one partner, and a shrinking share of married people in the U.S. population have brought new complexity to U.S. family life, and risks for the health and well-being of children and parents.

Several noted demographers and social researchers explored current trends and their implications at “The Vow Factor: Marriage, Divorce, and Family Formation and Their Impact on Health and Well-Being,” a briefing for members of Congress and their staff sponsored by California Congresswomen Lucille Roybal-Allard, the Population Association of America, and the Association of Population Centers.

The presenters at the April 17, 2015 event included:

  • Robert Moffitt, professor of economics, Johns Hopkins University (slides: PDF).
  • Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy, Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University (slides: PDF).
  • Lisa Berkman, professor of public policy and epidemiology, Harvard University (slides: PDF).
  • H. Elizabeth Peters, a labor economist and demographer and director of the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population, Urban Institute (slides: PDF).

Robert Moffitt reported that young adults are increasingly marrying at later ages—if at all—and giving birth to more children outside of marriage. While highly educated couples are postponing marriage and childbearing, disadvantaged couples are just postponing marriage, he noted. The share of births to unmarried couples has reached an “historic high,” rising from just 5 percent in 1960 to more than 40 percent by 2012. But cohabitation is not only concentrated among disadvantaged couples: The proportion of women ages 19 to 44 who cohabitated at any time in their lives nearly doubled between 1987 and 2010, increasing from 33 percent to 60 percent during the period.

Andrew Cherlin discussed the “marriage gap” between college-educated parents and those without college degrees. Among 46- to 54-year-olds in 2010, 61 percent of Americans with college degrees were in a first marriage, compared with 42 percent of high school graduates and 31 percent of those without high school diplomas. He pointed out that stable relationships are important for the well-being of children but cohabiting couples in the United States tend to break up more frequently than their European counterparts. This instability is reflected in “relationship churning, with parents’ partners moving in and out of the home.” He showed that about one in 12 U.S. children living with their mothers experience living with three or more maternal partners by age 15; by contrast, the share among children living with their mothers in European countries ranges from one in 38 in Sweden to one in 1,000 in Italy.

Cherlin reported that among U.S. couples with children, cohabiting couples are about three times more likely to have children by more than one partner (59 percent) than are married couples (21 percent). He described new research showing that living with a single parent increases the likelihood that children, particularly boys, will have behavioral problems. But the research finds that living in a single-parent household has no impact on cognitive development, “how well children do in school.” According to new evidence, the economic toll of divorce on women has declined somewhat as women’s earning potential has increased, while the financial impact of ending of a cohabiting relationship has risen.

Lisa Berkman discussed new research linking single motherhood in early or middle adulthood to poor health in old age. Mothers who were single the longest faced the highest health risks, likely reflecting the “constant exposure to the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of how hard life is juggling a lot alone,” she said. The rise in births to single mothers suggests “trouble down the road,” she warned.

Berkman also explored the results of another study that found a connection between limited maternity leave policies at the birth of a first child and depression in older ages. Postpartum stress and depression may trigger recurrent depression, she suggested. Older people with depression use more health services, home care, and assisted living than those without depression. Any cost-benefit analysis of maternity leave policies should take into account the potential impact on women’s mental health and health care costs 30 years later, she argued.

H. Elizabeth Peters analyzed federal policies that may serve as disincentives to marriage, describing the influences of various tax and benefit programs. Overall, marriage disincentives are small and “not driving the changes in marriage rates,” she found. She also examined research on programs designed to promote marriage by teaching relationship skills to unmarried couples with children. Evaluations show that the impacts of these programs are small and mixed. She pointed to “potentially more promising approaches” that might make low-income men more “marriageable,” such as improving education, job skills, and employment; reducing their involvement with the criminal justice system; and increasing employability and family connections following incarceration.

Involved fathers make important contributions to child well-being: Research links more time with fathers to better cognitive and social skills in children, lower levels of aggressive behavior among boys, and fewer mental health problems among girls, Peters reported. Her own research shows that policies targeted toward increasing child support can have a positive impact on child development and family functioning. For example, fathers who paid child support due to stricter enforcement policies had 27 more days of contact with their children than fathers who did not pay.

Cosponsors of the event included: Alliance for Aging Research, American Economic Association, American Statistical Association, American Sociological Association, Consortium of Social Science Associations, Gerontological Association of America, Population Reference Bureau, and Society for Research in Child Development.