Cohabitation and the Uneven Retreat from Marriage in the U.S., 1950-2010

Shelly J. Lundberg, University of California, Santa Barbara
Robert A. Pollak, Washington University in St. Louis

Since 1950, as women’s education and wages increased, traditional patterns of gender specialization weakened and the primary source of the gains to marriage shifted from the production of household services to investment in children. For some, these changes meant that the benefits from marriage were no longer worth the costs. Cohabitation became an acceptable living arrangement for all groups, but cohabitation serves different functions among different groups. The poor and less educated are much more likely to rear children in cohabitating relationships. The college educated typically cohabit before marriage, but they marry before conceiving children and their marriages are relatively stable. We argue that different patterns of childrearing are the key to understanding class differences in marriage and parenthood, not an unintended by-product of it. Marriage is the commitment mechanism that supports high levels of investment in children and is hence more valuable for parents adopting a high-investment strategy for their children.

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Presented in Session 124: Interaction of Family and Economic Processes