Childbearing without marriage: analysis of a trend

Harvard Magazine reports on an analysis of the rising national trend of having babies before or without marriage.


In February The New York Times ran a story under the provocative headline, “For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside of Marriage.” The article suggested childbearing outside of marriage was the “new normal”—that recently released data signaled a “coming generational change” in Americans’ attitudes toward family formation. It was a dramatic story, but sociologist Kathryn Edin says it obscured the truth about how childbearing is changing in the United States.

“What the article essentially got wrong is that this is an education story, not an age story,” explains Edin, professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School and a prominent scholar of the American family. She points out that 94 percent of births to college-educated women today occur within marriage (a rate virtually unchanged from a generation ago), whereas the real change has taken place at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. In 1960 it didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, college-educated or a high-school dropout—almost all American women waited until they were married to have kids. Now 57 percent of women with high-school degrees or less education are unmarried when they bear their first child.

The decoupling of marriage from childbearing among lower-income Americans is arguably the most profound social trend in American life today and has sparked intense political debate. But as Edin’s ethnographic research demonstrates, many of the basic assumptions about why this decoupling is occurring are wrong.
....
“The poor all say they want marriages like middle-class people have, marriages that will last,” Edin says. “Middle-class people are searching longer for their partners, they’re marrying people more like themselves, and as a result marriages have gotten happier and more stable.”

The poor may share middle-class attitudes toward marriage, but the fit with their circumstances isn’t nearly as good, she argues. Her 2005 paper “Why Don’t They Just Get Married?” cites a range of obstacles that prevent the poor from realizing their marital aspirations, including the low quality of many of their existing relationships; norms they hold about the standard of living necessary to support a marriage; the challenges of integrating kids from past relationships into new ones; and an aversion to divorce. People told her that “marriage is a big thing which they respect and don’t think they’re up to.” A mother quoted in that paper said, “I don’t believe in divorce. That’s why none of the women in my family are married.”

But even as low-income Americans view marriage as out of reach, Edin asserts, they continue to see bearing and raising children as the most meaningful activity in their lives. “One theme of Doing The Best I Can is that poor men really want to be dads and they really value fatherhood,” she says. “Both women and men at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder see having kids as the ultimate form of fulfillment”: given their bleak economic prospects and minimal hope of upward mobility, being a parent is one of the few positive identities available to them. Middle-class women have substantial economic incentives to delay childbearing (a woman who gives birth right after college earns half as much in her lifetime as the classmate who waits until her mid thirties), but those incentives don’t exist for poor women.

Comments (10)

We've talked about this study over at Friends of Jake a couple of times (here and here). In addition, we discussed the book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture which goes over some of the same ground, and the cultural trends around sex and religion that contribute.

The ironies abound, don't they? The biggest threat to family stability isn't the desire of LGBT couples to marry, it's the economy. Yet the right wing which insists that "every child deserves a mother and a father" utters not a peep about the economic trends that lead to the outcome discussed by Edin. It's not gay couples getting marriage that has disconnected procreation from marriage in our culture. Indeed, a substantial fraction of gay couples are raising children. Rather, it's their own side that has done it. We are simply the scapegoats.

The right wing made an icon of Bristol Palin , whose only claim to fame is to bear a child as a child-- something that my upbringing trained me to find unfortunate at best. But the red state culture finds something to admire in her because she kept the baby.

Further irony, blue state liberals have the most stable marriages and most traditional views about marriage. Indeed, those gay people who seek to marry (and to have their marriages blessed to boot) probably have far more in common with the social conservatives who want to "promote a culture of marriage" than either will easily acknowledge.

Susan Forsburg

Susan writes, "The biggest threat to family stability [is] the economy."

Susan, the article doesn't say that. It "cites a range of obstacles that prevent the poor from realizing their marital aspirations, including the low quality of many of their existing relationships; norms they hold about the standard of living necessary to support a marriage; the challenges of integrating kids from past relationships into new ones; and an aversion to divorce."

I will agree that not being poor might these things, but all these things are attitudes. It is not more expensive to marry and have kids than to not marry and have kids. (Unless one trots out the conservatives canard that people have kids because it increases their welfare payments. Empirical studies cast much doubt on that theory.)

Besides, being poor hasn't always been an obstacle to marrying. What's different is that norms and attitudes have changed.

And it's bad for kids.

I note that many have torn into the recent study on LGBT relationships and children. The critics rightly point out that what the study certainly does show is that instability is bad for kids, and this is something that was known.

The question is what to do about it. There are two avenues, and both should be pursued. And they are mutually reinforcing, too. Reduce poverty and change social norms. We don't have to go back to shaming single moms, but we can stop pretending that kids aren't affected by the absence of their father. We don't have to go back shaming people into shaming into staying in abusive marriages, but we can say marriage is not to entered to lightly -- do your best to find someone who shows signs of being a good life partner.

On a side note, the whole debate about whether LGBT couples should be allowed to have children is inconsistent with the generally accepted principle that it is immoral for the state to control decisions to have children. We no longer prohibit interacial marriage, or sterilize people involuntarily.

But the culture does have an interest in protecting children. And it does that by promoting stable environments for children once they come into this world involuntarily.

Thank you for this story. I am very interested in the working poor, and this entire issue is a major one stomping through their community like a 500lb gorilla. It is eclipsed by the 900lb gorilla of underemployment. The hopelessness of their culture is as thick as asphalt on a highway to nowhere.

Kevin McGrane

"People told her that “marriage is a big thing which they respect and don’t think they’re up to.” A mother quoted in that paper said, “I don’t believe in divorce. That’s why none of the women in my family are married.”

But even as low-income Americans view marriage as out of reach, Edin asserts, they continue to see bearing and raising children as the most meaningful activity in their lives."

So they're "not good enough" to get married, but think that it's just peachy to bring kids into an environment that can't support them?

Can't argue with logic like that.

No wonder things are effed up.

John, the economy certainly contributes to the crumbling of the norms. Poverty and economic decline are certain to stress and destabilize family structures, and the well-being of children. In an interview in the Atlantic, Edin is quoted/paraphrased thusly:

Communities with large numbers of unmarried, jobless men take on an unsavory character over time. Edin’s research team spent part of last summer in Northeast and South Philadelphia, conducting in-depth interviews with residents. She says she was struck by what she saw: “These white working-class communities—once strong, vibrant, proud communities, often organized around big industries—they’re just in terrible straits. The social fabric of these places is just shredding. There’s little engagement in religious life, and the old civic organizations that people used to belong to are fading. Drugs have ravaged these communities, along with divorce, alcoholism, violence....When young men can’t transition into formal-sector jobs, they sell drugs and drink and do drugs. And it wreaks havoc on family life. They think, ‘Hey, if I’m 23 and I don’t have a baby, there’s something wrong with me.’ They’re following the pattern of their fathers in terms of the timing of childbearing, but they don’t have the jobs to support it. So their families are falling apart—and often spectacularly.”

WE can agree that stable family environments and stable parental relationships are good for kids. (And in fact, that's what the REgnerus study says: it says nothing about stable gay families but only about families that break up vs families that don't). Stable environments can come in a lot of shapes and colors--and genders. If only we stopped arguing over the gender and focused on the ways to stabilize those relationships. This should be common ground.

Dave Paisley: yup.

Susan Forsburg

Chronic, endemic poverty can deeply warp reasoning and values. Having lived among the rural poor for four years now, I can assure you that it is not an easy thing to understand or resolve. Common sense, truth, hope, etc., are in short supply. Life is hard. Either you anesthetize yourself with chemicals, or BS.

Kevin McGrane

I bet a lot of these families that "don't believe in divorce", don't believe in abortion, either (and may even not believe in contraception).

Therefore, many incidents of unmarried sex lead to pregnancy, and pregnancy leads almost invariably to childbirth. Add pathological poverty and poor education, and repeat cycle. Kyrie eleison.

JC Fisher

[And, if one doesn't believe in divorce, abortion or contraception---and if you "don't care about the very poor"---there's a political party for that. Repeat political cycle. :-/]

May I address the following, please?

Low quality of existing relationships: the poor have few options for partners, always other poor folks like themselves with their own baggage, and zero hope of “finding someone better”…and we haven’t even address whether or not they think they *deserve* someone better.

Standard of living necessary to support a marriage: there is almost no such thing as a livable wage for the untrained and uneducated in the USA. What companies are hiring are hiring only part-time, not full-time. 30 hours a week at $8.50/hr comes us to about $250/week. The working poor are always one automobile-breakdown away from unemployment.

Challenges of integrating kids from other relations: he as two, she has three, together it’s five and try to feed them on $250/week per adult paycheck. And the other parents are playing the custody game for all it’s worth.

Aversion to divorce: it is extremely expensive and vicious. It can break you financially and emotionally. Best way to avoid it is not to get married in the first place.

Kevin McGrane

Kevin - wonder if you would do a Daily Episcopalian essay on being poor in the US? Write to me via Feedback.

Yes. I sent a note via feedback@episopalcafe.com

Kevin McGrane

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