Growing up Married vs Growing up Civil Union
In trend-setting Hollywood, celebrity couples like funny-man Jim Carrey and partner Jenny McCarthy have dismissed marriage as just a piece of paper.  Oscar winner Halle Berry has sworn off marriage as well, telling a reporter I dont think you need a piece of paper for the child to feel loved or legitimate. 
Certainly, love and legitimacy are not confined to marriage, but living common-law and living as a married couple are two very different decisions, particularly when children are involved.
A new Canadian study A new study by Dr. Frank Jones, Research Fellow at the IMFC, explores whether common-law and married homes affect children differently. Using data from Statistics Canadas National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, the study examines children of married and cohabiting parents at ages six to eleven and again eight years later at ages fourteen to nineteen, measuring responses to forty attitudes and behaviours based on family form.
The study finds that teens who as children had parents living common-law are more likely than teens of married parents to:
What might account for these differences? The study explores a three-fold hypothesis.
- sell drugs
- engage in sexual intercourse
- have a lower age of sexual initiation
- have poor relationships with their mom and dad
- have parents who do not get along
First, married couples in the study were more likely to be more highly educated, older, have more informal educational experiences and were more likely to be religious. Collectively categorized as human capital, these attributes among parents were associated with the lower likelihood of teens to use substances and have sex. Parental human capital was also associated with the increased likelihood of teens to delay sexual initiation and report being happier with life. Previous studies have found that common-law couples tend to be younger and less religious, and that married women tend to be older and more educated than their cohabiting counterparts. 
Second, common-law unions are less stable than married relationships. In the study sample, 49 percent of children age six to nine with common-law parents lived with only one biological parent in the home. On the other hand 94 percent of children age six to nine with married parents had both biological parents in the home. Other studies have also found high rates of union dissolution among common-law couples with young children. An American study found that unwed parents experience significantly more partner changes. This increases the stress on children, leading to modest increases in behavioural problems.  Other studies have found correlations between multi-partner change and early sexual initiation among boys and early childbearing among girls. 
Finally, common-law parents may be less committed to raising children. Union instability and frequent partner change may be a factor. American sociologist Bradford Wilcox also reports that married fathers are more likely to demonstrate affection to their wives and families than cohabitating men. 
Marriage and Public Policy
Marriage benefits children in ways that living together does not. Public policy should acknowledge the social good that healthy marriage delivers. The increased likelihood of teens engaging in risky behaviours should concern more than just parents. The education system, community social programmes, justice and healthcare bear the burden of assisting teens through the consequences of engaging in risky behaviour.
Marriage is a natural poverty fighter and public policy can nurture this source by removing financial disincentives, particularly for lower income individuals. Adding a marriage bonus to the Working Income Tax Benefit or moving to a family taxation model could assist families achieve greater autonomy. 
Public policy has attempted to make common-law look like marriage, when in fact, these are two very different choices. And perhaps some celebrities have strongly sworn off marriage precisely because they realize the two choices are not the same.
Public policy should treat common-law and marriage differently because they are different. Highlighting this difference is not a condemnation of those who choose not to marry, but recognition that marriage offers unique societal benefits.
1. Jim Carrey denies marriage a possibility with Jenny McCarthy. (2008, Mar. 18) New Zealand Herald. Retrieved March 3, 2009 from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/entertainment/news/article.cfm?c-id=1501119&objectid=10498872
2. Walls, J. (2006, June 7) Berry says yes to motherhood, no to marriage. MSNBC.com Retrieved March 3, 2009 from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12993760
3. Osborne, C., McLanahan, S. (2007, November) Partnership instability and child well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family vol. 69, no. 4. p. 1065. Popenoe, D. (2008) Cohabitation, marriage and child wellbeing: A cross-national perspective. (New Jersey: The National Marriage Project, Rutgers). p.10.
4. Osborne and McLanahan, p. 1079.
5. Capaldi, D., Crosby, L., Stoolmiller, M. (1996, April) Predicting the timing of first intercourse for at-risk adolescent males. Child Development vol. 67, no. 2, pp. 344-359. Wu, L. (1996, June) Effects of family instability, income and income instability on the risk of a premarital birth. American Sociological Review, vol. 61, no.3, pp. 386-406.
6. W. Bradford Wilcox, et al. (2005) Why Marriage Matters. Twenty-Six conclusions from the social sciences, 2nd Edition (New York: Institute for American Values). p. 2.
7. For further discussion on these policy options see Taylor, P.S. (2007) Family poverty in Canada: Raising incomes and strengthening families. Canadian Family Views. (Ottawa, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada) http://www.imfcanada.org/article-files/Family%20Poverty.pdf Mintz, J. (2008) Taxing families: Does the system need an overhaul? IMFC Review. (Ottawa: The Institute of Marriage and Family) http://www.imfcanada.org/article-files/b.pdf Permission is granted to reprint or broadcast this information with appropriate attribution to the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada