New research to examine the relationship between marital status and child development

12 January 2010

A groundbreaking new research project will examine the relationship between parents’ marital status and their children’s development of key cognitive, behavioural, social and emotional skills.

The project will be undertaken by the Institute for Fiscal Studies with funding from the Nuffield Foundation.

The proportion of births in England and Wales registered to married couples has been falling steadily for the last three decades, from over 90% in the late 1970s to 55% in 2008 (source: ONS). At the same time the proportion of births to cohabiting couples has been increasing over time, from around 10% in 1986 to 30% in 2008.

Better or worse?
Previous commentators have concluded that children born to cohabiting parents have worse outcomes than those born to married couples. However, cohabiting parents differ systematically from married parents in many ways aside from their formal marital status; typically they are less educated, younger and have a lower household income, than married parents. They may also differ in less easily observable ways, for example in their relationship quality, stability and commitment to their partner even before the birth of their child.

Key aims
The project has four key aims:

1. To describe in a simple but comprehensive way how young people born to parents of different household types differ in the development of a range of key skills (including cognitive, non-cognitive, behavioural, social and emotional skills), and engagement in a range of risky behaviours.

2. To describe some of the possible pathways, such as relationship stability and parental mental health, through which children born into cohabitation compared with formal marriage may either gain, or suffer, developmentally.

3. To assess to a greater extent than has previously been possible how far such differences in developmental trajectories (and the possible pathways examined) can be given a causal interpretation or whether they simply indicate positive (or negative) selection into marriage by different types of parents.

4. To assess the policy implications of the above, including a review of what the impact of changing the tax incentives to marry might be.

More information
More information about the project, Births out of wedlock and cognitive and social development throughout childhood: a quantitative analysis, can be found on the IFS website.