Unmarried and Living Together With Children

Washington, DC – Movie stars do it. Big-time athletes do it. Musicians and artists do it. And ordinary Janes and Joes do it, too. “It,” in this case, is having children outside of marriage. The proportion of births in the United States that occur outside of marriage has climbed dramatically over the last few decades—reaching 36 percent in 2004, up from 22 percent in 1985.  And more of these births are occurring to unmarried couples who live together (or cohabit).


A new research brief published by Child Trends takes a closer look at trends in childbearing outside of marriage, in general, and trends within cohabiting relationships, in particular. Using nationally-representative data  on babies born in 2001, the research brief finds:

  • Of all the babies born in the United States in 2001, one in five, or 19 percent, were born to women who were in cohabiting (unmarried) relationships.
  • Of all babies born to unmarried women in the United States in 2001, 52 percent were born to women in cohabiting relationships – up from 29 percent in 1980.


“The good news is that more than half of children born to unmarried parents begin life with both of their biological parents, and these kids are better off economically than are children born into single-mother households.  The bad news is that these children still face greater risks than do children in married-couple households. Also, cohabiting relationships have high rates of dissolution and if that happens, the children can be hurt, both emotionally and financially,” says Jennifer Manlove, Ph.D., one of the brief’s authors.


The brief also looks at the demographic characteristics of women who have children within cohabiting unions. For example, it finds that:

  • Hispanic women and non-Hispanic white women are more likely than are non-Hispanic black women to be in a cohabiting union when they have a child outside of marriage.
  • The most highly educated women are the least likely to have a child outside of marriage, but if they do, they are the most likely to do so within a cohabiting union.
  • The majority of women over the age of 20 who have a nonmarital birth do so within a cohabiting relationship; nonmarital births to teens are far less likely to occur within such relationships.


The research on which the brief was based was supported by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center serving those dedicated to creating better lives for children. For more information about Child Trends, click on www.childtrends.org.