Young Americans are likelier to have children without marrying than older Americans. Not so surprising.
But they are even more likely to do so amid high income inequality, a study released today in American Sociological Review finds.
Lead author Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, and his team studied 9,000 young men and women from 1997 to 2011. About half the subjects, who were 26 to 31 years old in 2011, reported having had at least one child; 59 percent of those births were outside of marriage. Previous estimates are consistent with the findings.
Here's the twist. About 80 percent of all births in the sample were to women without four-year college degrees, and women who lived in areas with high income inequality were 15 to 27 percent less likely to be married before having a first child than women in areas with low inequality.1
“For many young adults, having children is one of the most meaningful parts of their lives. They’re not willing to go without it,” Cherlin said. “They’d prefer to marry, but if they don’t see the prospects for a successful marriage, they will go ahead and have children anyway. If they wait too long, they might not have kids.”
Because unmarried couples who have children are likelier to break up than married couples, the result can be instability for the children and more hardship for the single parents.
In studying how income inequality affects the decision to have kids, the researchers looked at jobs for people without four-year degrees—about 68 percent of Americans. They separated them into jobs more or less likely to pay wages that could keep a family out of poverty and make young people more desirable to marry. These included office clerks, factory workers, and security guards.
On the other side of the coin were fast-food workers, lawn and gardening assistants, child care assistants, and parking lot attendants. If you aren't viewed as marriage material, Cherlin said, you're likelier to have children without getting married.
Arielle Kuperberg, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who studies how childbearing and marriage have changed over time, has found that people in areas with more opportunities for the less educated are likelier to get married.
“As living together before marriage has become more socially acceptable, [it’s] more and more adopted by people who have not achieved the financial goals they wanted to achieve before entering marriage,” said Kuperberg, who wasn't involved with Cherlin’s study.
In conducting their study, Cherlin and his researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They chose people who were 12 to 16 years old in 1997 and followed them until 2011, matching marriage and birth rates with census data about income and employment.
Cherlin acknowledged that unplanned births could have affected his conclusions but said it was more likely that most of the children of unmarried parents were neither fully planned nor fully unplanned.
“There are many young adults who may not want a child now but may not be doing much to prevent it,” he said. When a pregnancy results, “they then have a choice of whether to marry or not,” he said. “They didn’t have that choice 50 years ago.”