Archive for the ‘society’ Category

Cohabitation, marriage, relationship stability and child outcomes

6 December, 2018

An Institute of Fiscal Studies report (2013), on “Cohabitation, marriage, relationship stability and child outcomes”, has written that:

“It is well known that children born to married parents tend to achieve better cognitive and social outcomes, on average, than children born into other family forms, including cohabiting unions. The existence of such gaps is potentially important, given the long-term consequences of childhood cognitive and non-cognitive skills and behaviours for education, labour market and other outcomes in adulthood.”

“One of the hypotheses that is often put forward to explain why children born to married couples do better than children born to cohabiting couples is the greater stability of married compared with cohabiting unions: married couples are, on average, less likely to split up than cohabiting couples.”

The report then tries to explain away this explanation by saying:

“In both cases, however, it must be recognised that marital status may not be the cause of these differences. Cohabiting couples may differ from married couples in many ways other than their formal marital status, such as their education or the love and commitment in their relationship. Differences in relationship stability or the outcomes of children born to cohabiting and married couples may simply reflect these differences in other characteristics rather than be caused by marriage.”


“Our view is therefore that the gaps in [cognitive development and] socio-emotional development are also more likely to arise from the fact that different types of people choose to get married, rather than because getting married confers positive benefits on children’s behaviour.”

And where the gap for “other behaviours” – including that “children born to cohabiting couples are significantly more likely to engage in a range of risky and anti-social behaviours” – could not be fully accounted for – statistically, not casually – the authors are at pains to say that:

“It might be possible to eliminate the remaining differences if we had access to richer data. Bearing [this] in mind… we would strongly caution against interpreting a remaining significant association between parents’ marital status and their child’s participation in risky and antisocial behaviours as evidence of a positive causal effect of marriage on children’s behaviour.”

The IFS report then concludes that: “Overall, our findings suggest that the differences in relationship stability between cohabiting and married parents, and the cognitive and non-cognitive skills and behaviours of their children, mainly or entirely reflect the fact that different types of people choose to get married (the selection effect), rather than that marriage has a direct positive causal effect on relationship stability or children’s outcomes. On the basis of this evidence, therefore, there does not seem to be a strong rationale for policies that seek to encourage couples to get married, at least not if the aim is to increase these measures of relationship stability or child development.”

Much of this “selection effect” is explained, they say “by differences in the mother’s background, plus parental education, income and work status.”

Differences in the mother’s background include “that cohabiting mothers grew up in poorer environments than married mothers.”

However, what the report fails to highlight – even though it is there in the data – is that one of the largest and most significant differences is that cohabiting mothers were more likely to have come from a family situation where their own parents had separated! (See Table 3.1) It was the first and most obvious thing I looked for.

In other words, one way of looking a the dataset is that those who come from a stable family background tend to experience better outcomes and are much more likely to perpetuate the same by entering into marriage, which tends to result in better outcomes for their children.

Therefore, contrary to the report’s conclusions, the underlying data actually seems to provide “a strong rationale for policies that seek to encourage couples to get married”, if “the aim is to increase these measures of relationship stability or child development.”

%d bloggers like this: