Children with unmarried parents

The National Catholic Reporter has an interesting article on marriage statistics in the U.S. It seems that marriage rates have dropped quite substantially over the last few decades. In 1960, 74% of Americans over the age of 18 were married. Today, that sector of the population has shrunk to 51%.

Apparently a significant proportion of this decrease might have occurred in the last few years thanks to the economic turn down. Numbers might therefore be expected to pick up again once the economy does.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider a scenario in which formal marriage continues to dwindle as a priority for Americans. How will this effect children, I wonder? Certainly the birth rate has dropped significantly from a value of 23.7 births per 1000 people to its current value of 13.8, so average family size is shrinking. And interestingly, the divorce rate has dropped to its lowest value since 1970. The peak rate since that year was in 1981, when there were 5.3 divorces per 1000 people. Now the rate is 3.6. This is surely encouraging news for children.

According to the Rainbows website, almost 70% of children are living in “non-traditional” families, mostly with step-families or with their biological mothers. But while it is clear that divorces have a negative impact on children, as do fatherless households, it is not clear what sort of impact is made by non-tradition family situations that don’t involve these factors.

For instance, how do children living with two unmarried parents fare?

One of the most common family types with two unmarried parents, is of course, the gay partnership, for which marriage is legally off limits. And studies such as that conducted by Michael Rosenfeld indicate that children fare just as well in families with gay parents as they do in traditional families*. A meta-study by Timothy Biblarz and and Judith Stacey in the Journal of Marriage and Family (in 2010), says very much the same thing.

Of course, these studies are focused on the issue of gay parenting, but they clearly demonstrate that formal marriage is by no means a requirement for raising happy, well-adjusted kids. What kids need is a stable home with committed parents – it seems to be the upheaval that comes from divorce and remarriage that causes the big problems.

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* Dr. Rosenfeld’s paper, which was publishied in Demography in 2010, can be accessed for free from his website here.

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