I’m teaching a course at Georgetown this semester called “Family Diversity in America.” This week, my students are writing a short paper where they have to explain either how low incomes contribute to disadvantageous family situations, or how disadvantageous family situations contribute to low incomes. Heather Rackin and Christina Gibson-Davis would easily have gotten an “A” on my assignment because their recent study in the Journal of Marriage and Family highlights one of the mechanisms through which today’s family patterns result in greater economic difficulties: cohabitation. Rackin and Gibson-Davis explain how the rise in cohabitation has disadvantaged children of lower and moderately-educated mothers more than children whose mothers have a college degree.
The authors use a term to describe a large volume of relationship turnovers that is fairly common in the academic literature: “churning,” which means lots of entrances and exits. I first learned of the term in the context of investments: an investment advisor who encourages you to change your market positions frequently can be suspected of wanting to benefit from churning, that is, in financial terms, to profit from the transaction fees themselves. While children certainly benefit from relationship transitions that remove them from abuse or lift them out of poverty, the evidence shows that kids who experience relationship churning typically pay a price (e.g., academic, economic, psychological, behavioral). Kids are not a party that pockets transaction fees.
What has happened over time in the U.S. is that disadvantaged kids have come to experience more relationship transitions and their associated costs. This is what we call diverging destinies: when socioeconomically disadvantaged kids are more likely to have experiences that impoverish—they started out behind richer kids, and their destinies diverged further because their family transitions tended to cost them, while richer kids were more likely to benefit from stability. If you were assigned the paper for my class, you would have to decide whether to write about how lower-income families face many barriers to stable marriage or how breaking up and re-forming families has costs of its own (e.g., lost economies of scale from break-ups or gained stress from forming complex families).