Causation, correlation, controlling for income levels? Screw it.
NPR does a story on a report issued by a group that claims cohabitation is bad for children, because they've found some correlations between cohabitation of parents and bad outcomes for kids in education and some mental health measures, though the measures all sound alarmingly hazy in and of themselves. What the supposedly "liberal media" NPR fails to mention is that the study authors are fundamentalist Christians who spend their lives constructing poorly reasoned arguments off often-iffy research to make the illogical argument that marriage is a talisman that fixes all problems.
Whenever you see a study touting the supposed benefits of marriage over non-marriage—but especially over cohabitation—it's time to step back and ask two very important questions:
1) How will these research results cause people who are unmarried to become married?
2) Even if you could wave a magic wand and make the unmarried get married to whoever will have them, will that marriage work as a magic talisman that erases their problems, or will they be the same people with the same outcomes that just happen to wear wedding rings?
In this case, the answer to #1 is, "It can't, because people who don't get married usually have individual reasons not to do so that won't be affected by your research." And the answer to #2 is, "It wouldn't, because getting married doesn't actually make your boss give you a raise, your school improve its educational standards, or your relationship grow in quality." The only real results of some dramatic surge in pushing people who aren't married into marriages they don't want is that the divorce rate would go up.
NPR does interview Stephanie Coontz, who makes this point, saying that marriage is a symptom of stability, not the cause. Married people are wealthier, for instance, not because wedding rings shoot out gold but because a lot of people don't feel right getting married until they've achieved economic stability. But babies tend to come whether you're ready or not because we have a culture that continues to discourage planning when you become a parent—half of pregnancies in this country are unintended. Since the majority of women who have abortions are already mothers, abortion isn't really as much of a factor in creating a culture where people wait to have babies until they're ready in the same way they to wait to get married until they're ready. But don't expect the authors of this study to address that, since, yo, patriarchy-loving fundamentalist Christians.
Nona is the one whose blogging pointed out this story to me, and she makes an astute point that people really should meditate on when being lulled by this dishonest research that makes the false claim that correlation of marriage to certain outcomes means causation:
The kicker, a fact that's "a mystery to researchers," is that European cohabitors, who are much more common than their counterparts in the United States, have much more stable home lives.
Oh, I bet it's not really a "mystery", unless by "mystery" you mean "evidence that destroys our entire thesis so we're going to ignore the hell out of it". Nona explains:
Allow me to clear up the mystery: healthy relationships spawn marriages, not the other way around. Europeans may be even less concerned about making it "official" once their union has proven to be successful and enduring.
The irony here is that the researchers are basically pushing for a situation where people put less effort into making sure their unions are enduring before they make it official. Which would go a long way indeed towards wiping out the difference between outcomes for cohabitating couples and married couples, but mostly by bringing the outcomes for married couples down.