Jewish World Review March 14, 2003 / 10 Adar II, 5763

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Unmarried unions no bargain for anyone

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com |
The Census brings news that cohabiting couples are now almost as likely as married ones to be raising children. While the majority of children continue to be raised by married couples, the past decade has witnessed a 72 percent increase in the number of unmarried couples who are deciding to have children. Nationally, 46 percent of married couples are raising children versus 43 percent of cohabiting couples -- and while in absolute numbers the children of married parents still far predominate, the trend toward unmarried childrearing is on the increase.

From one point of view, the prevalence of unmarried parenting could be interpreted as good news, since a previously unmeasured number of biological dads seem to be taking part in the upbringing of their illegitimate children.

But the comfort is cold, as cohabiting couples have such a high rate of separation -- much higher than the already lofty levels of divorce among married couples. As Kay Hymowitz reports in the March issue of Commentary, only one-sixth of cohabiting couples remain together for three years, and only a tenth for 10 years. So while biological dads may be present at the creation, it is extremely unlikely that they will remain in their children's home for the full 18 years of childhood. Because serial cohabitation is so common, 70 percent of the children being raised by cohabiting couples are the biological offspring of only one partner.

Nor is it the case that a home with unmarried parents is as wholesome for kids as those with married parents. Whether cohabiting couples decline to marry because they value their sexual freedom, are less inclined toward long-range planning, have negative feelings about family life based on their own childhood experiences or for some other reason, they tend to be less supportive of children (note the word "tend" -- individual cases will vary).

The Institute for American Values has surveyed the literature on marriage and finds that couples who live together without benefit of clergy report more conflict, more violence and lower levels of satisfaction in their relationships than married couples (see "Why Marriage Matters," www.americanvalues.org). The children of these couples also show many of the same troubles that children of divorced or single-parent families display -- a higher infant mortality rate, lower grades in school, a higher tendency to repeat a grade and a greater drop-out rate.

Children of divorced or cohabiting couples are also more likely to experience depression, drug abuse and other mental illnesses. When they become teen-agers, boys who do not grow up with their married parents are more likely to get into trouble with the law, while girls are more likely to become pregnant. Children who live with cohabiting adults are also at much higher risk than the general population of sexual abuse -- the so-called "boyfriend problem." One study found that a preschooler living with a stepfather was 40 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than one living with both biological parents. Another study suggests that boyfriends are responsible for half of all reported cases of child abuse by non-parents.

Children of non-married parents are worse off even in terms of physical health and life expectancy. In Sweden, where health care is socialized and payments to single mothers are generous, adults raised by unmarried parents are more inclined to suffer poor health and to die early than people raised by married parents.

The adults in these temporary unions are hardly better off. Married mothers have far lower rates of depression than divorced or cohabiting mothers. Married women also experience less domestic violence. The National Survey of Families and Households found that cohabiters were more than three times as likely to report physical violence as married couples.

Married couples build more wealth than cohabiters. They are more likely to own their own home and more likely to receive financial support from both sets of grandparents. As Charles Murray once phrased it: A man will bring his son-in-law into the family business, but not his daughter's live-in boyfriend. Married men are healthier and less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, be unemployed, or get into trouble with the law than unmarried men.

Don't marry any old jerk just to be married, but be aware that cohabitation is often a dead end.

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