Racial and educational disparities in union transitions of cohabitors : the importance of long-term economic prospects



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The purpose of this dissertation is to provide a better understanding of the mechanisms that sustain the divergent patterns of union transition behavior among cohabitors of different socioeconomic backgrounds--broadly defined by race and education. For this purpose, this dissertation proposes three research questions. First, it asks how racial and educational disparities in cohabitors' union transition behaviors have changed over time. I find that the trends of cohabitors' union transitions diverge particularly among educational groups, with the decline in the odds of transitioning into marriage primarily concentrated among those with no college degrees, resulting in a growing disparity in marriage between college-educated and non-college educated over time. Moreover, the differences in transitioning to marriage across educational or racial-ethnic groups cannot be explained by differences in marital intentions. Specifically, the current analysis suggests that there are no differences in marital intentions by education (or race-ethnicity) among recent cohabitors. Second, I explore how the first union formation processes based on a variety of indicators for young people's socioeconomic conditions vary between African Americans and non-Hispanic whites. I find that the process of entering cohabiting unions does differ between African Americans and non-Hispanic whites. That is, non-Hispanic whites who come from disadvantaged family backgrounds, in terms of low levels of parental incomes and education, and who have nonmarital births are more likely to enter cohabiting unions than to stay single, as compared with their non-Hispanic white peers with more advantaged backgrounds and those who have no children born outside of marriage. Yet, African Americans are significantly less likely to enter cohabiting unions and are more likely to stay single, as compared with similarly disadvantaged non-Hispanic whites. I further discuss in Chapter 2 how the findings on racial differences in the process of entering first unions can shed light on how racial and educational differences in cohabitation outcomes take shape among recent cohorts of cohabitors. Third, I investigate to what extent the educational disparities in the odds of transitioning to marriage could be attributed to differences in wealth as well as employment conditions among educational groups. I find that cohabitors' union transitions are largely contingent on their homeownership status (and the access to credit for securing it) for both male and female cohabitors. Moreover, parental wealth is also associated with their opportunities for entering marriage with their cohabiting partners, but only for women. More importantly, a substantial amount of educational disparities in the probability of transition to marriage from cohabitation is found to be attributable to the differences in securing these economic resources among educational groups. Altogether, findings in my dissertation update our knowledge of what cohabitation looks like in contemporary American society. Also, they point out the importance of exploring the institutional and economic mechanisms involved in the educational differences in family behavior and investigating the racial differences in family behavior through the lens of class.