Guide to Data Sources on the Determinants of Marriage and Cohabitation

Publication Date: March 15, 2003


The proportion of American children living in single parent families grew steadily from the 1960s through the mid-1990s and has remained at high levels since then (Ellwood and Jencks 2001). Declines in marriage, increases in divorce and non-marital cohabitation, and growing non-marital childbearing all have played a part in these trends. Children whose parents face limited economic opportunities are especially likely to grow up in single parent families. As a consequence, these children are at a higher risk of lagging social and emotional development, failure in school, limited career prospects, and becoming single parents themselves (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994).

U.S. government policy has sought alternatively to improve the circumstances of single parent families and to reduce their numbers. There now is growing interest in interventions seeking to promote healthy marriages, and, where marriage is infeasible, strengthen relationships between unmarried parents. These interventions will stand a better chance for success if they are based on a sound understanding of the determinants of union formation, stability, and quality. 

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is the lead federal agency charged with developing and testing in itiatives in this area. Mindful of the need for strong basic empirical foundation for policies and programs, ACF commissioned Abt Associates Inc. to review the evidence on important determinants of marriage and cohabitation among disadvantaged Americans. The objectives of this project were to (1) assess findings and gaps in basic research literature and (2) provide a guide to major national survey data that could be used to close the gaps. This report— which documents nine key surveys—fulfills the second of these objectives. An accompanying report presents findings from our literature review (Fein et al. 2003).

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