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Childbearing without marriage: analysis of a trend

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.


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Kevin McGrane

Ann Fontaine

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


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


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. :-/]


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

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