Eighteen million people in the U.S. are cohabiting, and half are under age 35. Cohabiting couples are more egalitarian; but they are younger, poorer, and more vulnerable at work and at home. These families’ needs are neglected in many plans for how to help in a time of pandemic. 

 Newspapers and websites are full of advice for married couples who are working from home while trying to manage child care. But most of that advice is aimed at married couples, whose challenges are often very different than those facing the millions of cohabiting couples in America. In a briefing report, The Challenges Facing Cohabiting Couples in this Crisis, to the Council on Contemporary Families, Amanda Miller (University of Indianapolis) and Sharon Sassler (Cornell  University) show how crucial it is to understand cohabiting families and respond to their—until now—neglected needs and concerns. Consider:

  • Cohabitors have less money. Fifty-three percent earn less than $30,000 per year.
  • An estimated 5.8 million American children were living in cohabiting households in 2018. Almost twice as many cohabiting parents as married ones (46 percent vs. 26 percent) are low-income, earning 150 percent or less of the supplemental poverty measure.
  • Cohabitors are concentrated in low-wage jobs, making them more likely to have been impacted by the 30 million job losses we experienced in the past month, but also more likely to be labeled essential workers, required to report to high-stress front-line jobs with inadequate protections in place.
  • As some states relax shelter-in-place orders, cohabitors who have jobs to go back to are less likely to have paid sick leave, increasing the likelihood of exposure on the job.

Egalitarianism helps, but…. Heterosexual cohabitors have one advantage in this crisis compared to their married counterparts, Miller and Sassler report. On average, they are less locked in to traditional gender roles and less likely to assume that women should do more care work at home. Such equality is now one of the strongest predictors of relationship satisfaction, suggesting that heterosexual married couples have some things to learn from cohabitors, as well as from same-sex married couples. However, many cohabitors do not intend to marry, and the report outlines the different risks that can arise when relationships are intensified by shelter-in-place orders.

The bottom line: Shelter-in-place and the attendant global economic crisis compound the hardships and risks facing cohabitors. Miller and Sassler argue for specific social policies tailored to address their unique financial and demographic characteristics.

Virginia Rutter is a Framingham State University Professor of Sociology, Council on Contemporary Families Senior Scholar, and co-editor of Families as They Really Are. Follow her at @VirginiaRutter.