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New research published by researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found little or no evidence that marriage itself has any effect on children's social or cognitive development.
The study challenges views repeatedly expressed by the Conservative Party who argue that marriage should be supported through the tax system in order to improve children's cognitive or social development.
The researchers found the differences in outcomes for children born to cohabiting couples and married couples was due to the fact that on average those who marry tend to come from more advantaged families, and are more cognitively and emotionally successful themselves, than those who cohabit.
The study shows that children born to cohabiting parents, on average, exhibit a small deficit in cognitive development at ages 3, 5 and 7 compared with children born to married parents. However, the researchers found that this deficit is almost entirely accounted for by the fact that cohabiting parents tend to have lower educational qualifications than married parents, and is not a consequence of parental marital status itself.
Researchers also found that children born to cohabiting parents, on average, exhibit a deficit in socio-emotional development at ages 3, 5 and 7 compared with children born to married parents. However, this gap is reduced by around two thirds once differences in parental education and socio-economic status are controlled for, and disappears entirely once other differences, such as family structure, are accounted for. This suggests that the majority of the gap in socio-emotional development between children born to cohabiting as opposed to married parents is accounted for by their parents' lower levels of education and income.
Ellen Greaves, Research Economist at the IFS, and one of the authors of the report, said: "It is true that children born to married couples are on average more cognitively and emotionally successful than children born to cohabiting couples. But careful analysis shows that this largely reflects the differences between the types of people who decide to get married and those who don't.
"Marriage itself appears to confer little, if any, benefit in terms of child development".