Second child increases the likelihood that never-married mothers will cohabit

May 07, 2001

University Park, Pa. -- When unmarried mothers have a second child, their living arrangements change dramatically, usually in the direction of cohabitation, a Penn State study finds.

"Never-married women having their first baby are three times more likely to live with parents or a parent than to cohabit with a male partner," says Dr. Anastasia R. Snyder, assistant professor of rural sociology and demography. "The critical change comes with the birth of the second child, especially if that occurs within 2 years of the first birth and the never-married mother has no employment history. At that point, the two-child, jobless mother is more than twice as likely to cohabit than an employed mother with one child."

With the second birth, cohabitation surpasses living with parents as the living arrangement of choice for never-married mothers of two. According to Snyder's research, the percentage of never- married mothers, employed or not, who live with parents declines from 43 to 22.5 percent, while the percentage of cohabiting never-married mothers increases from 17.3 to 25.8. The remaining unmarried mothers are living in another arrangement, most presumably as household heads.

Cohabitation is attractive to never-married mothers, especially mothers of two children, for two reasons, the study concludes. First, living with a male partner serves as a temporary buffer against the hardships associated with two nonmarital births as opposed to 1 birth. Among never-married women with two children, those who are cohabiting are the least likely to be poor and receive any form of public assistance, says Snyder.

"Cohabitation is also an agreeable alternative because of its increasing stability and level of social acceptance," Snyder notes. "Prior to the 1990s, if a never-married woman of one child were not cohabiting, then the odds were slim that she would be cohabiting at the time of the second birth. This was far less true in the 1990s."

Snyder and Cassandra A. Logan, doctoral student in rural sociology and demography at Penn State, presented their research in the paper, "Living with Parents or Living with a Male Partner: Birth Order and Living Arrangements among Unmarried Women," at the recent Population Association of America conference in Washington, D.C.

The two researchers used data from the 1995 cycle of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), a nationally representative sample of 1,910 unmarried women with one child and 944 unmarried women with two children.

The number of children born out of wedlock has risen rapidly over the past generation. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the proportion of families resulting from a nonmarital birth increased from 18.4 percent in 1980 to 32.4 percent in 1999.

Coresidence with parents has in recent decades been the best option for young, unmarried mothers with no work history, few skills and a minimal education, according to Snyder. However, with the second birth, financial pressures greatly intensify for all concerned. Living with parents can be far less beneficial when the parents themselves lack the education and economic means to help mother and grandchildren. The situation only gets worse in the case of a single, aging and often disadvantaged parent.

Thus, for economic as well as social and emotional reasons, it is not surprising that never-married mothers of two children to gravitate toward cohabitation, says the Penn State researcher, who is an associate of Penn State's Population Research Institute.

"One objective of the 1996 welfare reform bill was to stress the viability of marriage as a means to end welfare dependency," Snyder adds. "However, policy makers might want to consider encouraging all stable unions as a means of promoting economic well-being."
EDITORS: Dr. Snyder can be reached at 814-865-6223. Her e-mail address is

Penn State

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