Jeff Short talks with Brad Wilcox, professor of Sociology at University of Virginia about his research on the effects marriage and cohabitation has on children.

Jeff Short
Jeff Short

Brad: Cohabiting parents are the most likely to report that they are worried about their future, that they think they might break up. About 39% of cohabiting parents express this concern here in the United Kingdom, whereas it is just 27% of married parents in the UK. The concern is highest among cohabiting parents in the UK of any other group across our sample of 11 countries. This is a signal of the way in which cohabitation is a risk for families, for kids here in the UK.

Jeff: It's interesting because you would describe marriage as the gold standard and a lot of people would see it as an outdated, old- fashioned institution. How does that come about?

Brad: People do think of marriage as a hide-bound, traditional institution but it doesn't matter if you are in Norway or France or the US or the UK. The data is that kids who are born into families where the parents are married are much more likely to be living with Mum and Dad by age 12 than kids born to cohabiting couples.

Even though a ton of things have changed when it comes to family life. In all these different countries there is something about marriage that it's still seen as the gold standard when it comes to commitment and when it comes to stability. If you've had kids, if you've babysat kids, if you know kids, they strive on stable routines with stable caregivers. And they're most likely to get that stability across Europe, including the UK, across the US, when their parents get married. That's one thing you can take away from all this research.

Jeff: How much time and how many people did it involve?

Brad: We have more than 11,000 respondents across the globe and in the United Kingdom more than 2,000 respondents. It's a pretty big survey of people in the Anglo sphere, France and America.

Jeff: I find it quite heartening that that would be the case although it's sad that any child would be in the case that they lose that stability of both parents being there. Why do you think people would choose cohabiting over marriage or why would they choose marriage over cohabiting?

Brad: There are at least two big factors driving the decision to cohabit rather than to marry. One is a concern about commitment and whether or not you really have confidence in your partner, that this person is capable of going the distance, that your relationship can go the distance.

The second part is about economics and it cuts two different ways. Particularly women are hesitant to marry someone who's not got a decent paying full-time job and those sorts of jobs are in short supply for many working class men today.

But the other key to this and it's a public policy angle is you have a couple penalty here in the United Kingdom. It's easier to get benefits, housing, child tax credits and the like when you're lower income obviously. What that practically means is getting married, joining two incomes together can make you ineligible for things like housing credit, tax credit. There's a penalty there for marriage that your public policies here in the UK have locked in. These things help to explain why for the upper middle class and the upper class people are getting married or staying married. For working class and poor British citizens we're not seeing that, we're seeing a lot more cohabitation today.

Jeff: That makes a lot of sense when you say it like that. But the benefits, not just within the individual marriage but also for a nation, I read some words from Sir Paul Coleridge, from the Marriage Foundation about the impact, the cost of family break-up is 50 billion plus a year for Britain.

Brad: It definitely is the case that when you have lots of single parents you have more poverty. You have reduced economic mobility. Kids are locked into a cycle of poverty more. You have more knife crime. Any number of things flow from lots of single parent families. The break down of marriage exacts a serious economic, social and emotional set of costs, not just on individual kids and families but of course on communities, neighbourhoods and the country as a whole.

Jeff: That's so pertinent with this pandemic of knife crime across Britain. If you could give more stability where children are accountable to two parents and you've maybe got a role model in the household it's got to be a benefit, hasn't it?

Brad: We see both in international data and data in the United States that family stability not just in the household but in the neighbourhood, having lots of two parents in the neighbourhood is a big protector of public safety. When you don't have that, teenage boys and young men are more likely to be acting out or acting up.