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Measuring Cohabitation in U.S. National Surveys

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Cohabitation is one of the fastest growing family forms in the United States. It is widespread and continues to increase but has not been consistently measured across surveys. It is important to track the quality of data on cohabitation because it has implications for research on the correlates and consequences of cohabitation for adults and children. Recent rounds of the Current Population Survey (CPS), National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY-97), and National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) provide an opportunity to contrast estimates of cohabitation status and experience using nationally representative data sets and assess the quality of data on cohabitation in these data sets. Results demonstrated that the surveys provide similar estimates of current cohabitation status, except the CPS resulted in lower estimates. In terms of cohabitation experience (i.e., having ever cohabited), Add Health produced higher estimates, whereas both the NSFG and NLSY-97 produced lower estimates. We documented a strong education gradient across all surveys, with lower levels of current cohabitation and cohabitating experience and with increases in educational attainment. Racial/ethnic differences in cohabitation were inconsistent across surveys. We discuss aspects of sampling and measurement that potentially explain differences in estimates. Our findings have implications not only for survey design but also for the interpretation of results based on these four national surveys.

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  1. The 2008 ACS indicated education levels for a comparable age group (25–34): 14 % less than a high school diploma, 25 % high school diploma, 32 % some college, and 29 % college graduate. The NSFG and CPS match the racial and ethnic distributions in the ACS. Perhaps the NLSY-97 and Add Health differ because of greater attrition in longitudinal data by youth from more disadvantaged backgrounds (Aughinbaugh and Gardecki 2008; Brownstein et al. 2011).

  2. A simple roster estimate using the CPS results in 11.2 % cohabiting, so the partner pointers increased cohabitation by 20 %.


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This research was supported in part by the Center for Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green State University, which has core funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P2CHD050959). This research uses data from Add Health, a program project directed by Kathleen Mullan Harris and designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and funded by Grant P01-HD31921 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 23 other federal agencies and foundations. Special acknowledgment is due to Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Information on how to obtain the Add Health data files is available on the Add Health website ( ). No direct support was received from Grant P01-HD31921 for this analysis. An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the Population Association of America. We appreciate helpful comments provided by Karen Benjamin Guzzo and Krista K. Payne.

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Correspondence to Wendy D. Manning.

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Manning, W.D., Joyner, K., Hemez, P. et al. Measuring Cohabitation in U.S. National Surveys. Demography 56, 1195–1218 (2019).

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