Nonmarital Childbearing, Cohabiting Childbearing, and Family Disruption

by Reihan Salam

Recently, Paul Krugman wrote a surprisingly polite and thoughtful reply to a recent Ross Douthat column. Krugman’s reply included the following observation:

In Sweden, more than half of children are born out of wedlock— but they don’t seem to suffer much as a result, perhaps because the welfare state is so strong. Maybe we’ll go that way too. So?

It is important to remember, however, that children can be born out of wedlock while being raised in intact families. And it turns out that Swedish families are far more likely to remain intact than U.S. families, as David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks observed in 2002:

Similar changes have occurred in most other affluent nations, but Figure 2 reveals that none have nearly as much family disruption as the United States. It is true that out-of-wedlock births are as common in many European countries as in the United States.  But the estimated percentage of fifteen year olds living with both of their biological parents is far lower in the United States that in Western Europe. Even in Sweden, where nonmarital births are almost twice as common as in the United States, most unmarried parents raise their children together.  As a result, two-thirds of all Swedish fifteen year olds are expected to live with both of their biological parents – a figure comparable to that in Germany and France. [Emphasis added]

Nonmarital births have increased in the U.S., e.g., in 2009, 41 percent of all births in the U.S. occurred outside of marriage. Yet there does not appear to have been a marked decrease in family disruption in the U.S. over the intervening years, particularly among less-educated households.

Sweden is an interesting case, as stable families are to some degree decoupled from the institution of marriage. Consider the abstract of “Children’s experiences of family disruption in Sweden: Differentials by parent education over three decades,” an article published in Demographic Research in 2010:

This paper examines the living arrangements of Swedish children from 1970 through 1999 using the Level of Living Survey. Sweden, with low levels of economic inequality and a generous welfare state, provides an important context for studying socioeconomic differentials in family structure. We find that, although differences by parent education in non-marital childbearing are substantial and persistent, cohabiting childbearing is common even among highly educated Swedish parents. Educational differences in family instability were small during the 1970s, but increased over time as a result of rising union disruption among less-educated parents (secondary graduates or less). Children in more advantaged families experienced substantially less change in family structure and instability over the study period. Although cohabiting parents were more likely to separate than parents married at the child’s birth, differences were greater for the less-educated. Data limitations precluded investigating these differences across time. We conclude that educational differences in children’s living arrangements in Sweden have grown, but remain small in international comparisons. [Emphasis added]

That is, among educated cohabiting parents in Sweden, levels of family instability are fairly low. So you can see why looking at the number of Swedish children born out of wedlock is potentially misleading — what we really want to understand is the overall level of family instability. While nonmarital childbearing is a decent proxy for disruption in the U.S., it is a less useful proxy in Sweden.  

To return to Krugman’s point, perhaps we shouldn’t be too concerned about cohabiting childbearing as such. (“So?”) Rather, we should be concerned about family instability, which appears to be more pervasive in the U.S. than in Sweden.

For more on this subject, I recommend “Family Instability and Child Well-being,” a 2007 article by Paula Fomby and Andrew Cherlin and Andrew Cherlin’s excellent Marriage-Go-Round.