When Having Babies Beats Marriage

This teenager regularly hurries from  his job to a local day-care center to  spend time with his son in his new role  as a father.

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.

Consider, first, the explanation that conservative political scientist Charles Murray ’65 advances in his recent book Coming Apart: that poor Americans value marriage less than the middle class does. In the late 1990s, Edin spent two years living in Camden, New Jersey, the nation’s poorest city, where she got to know several hundred poor, unmarried mothers and fathers. Her conversations with them—and five years of follow-up interviews—served as the basis for Promises I Can Keep (2005), about unmarried low-income mothers, and Doing the Best I Can (written with Timothy Nelson, a lecturer in social policy at the Kennedy School), a forthcoming book about unmarried low-income fathers. In both books, Edin argues that the poor place tremendous value on marriage—but often see it as unobtainable.

“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. As Edin writes in Promises I Can Keep, “Early childbearing is highly selective of girls whose characteristics—family background, cognitive ability, school performance, mental-health status, and so on—have already diminished their life chances so much that an early birth does little to reduce them further.”

Doing the Best I Can includes the story of 15-year-old André, who rejoiced to learn his ex-girlfriend was pregnant. Edin was initially perplexed by a reaction so different from a middle-class teen’s—but she began to understand his behavior after a year in his Camden neighborhood. “He was embracing life and rejecting death,” she explains. “He could have been out there dealing drugs but instead he’s diapering his baby and learning how to twist her hair. Given the incredible trauma in André’s life, the condition of his neighborhood, what the real counterfactuals to having a baby might actually be, is taking a risk on a pregnancy and then embracing the child a mistake? Probably not.” Nevertheless, André’s genuine excitement about becoming a father doesn’t change the long odds his daughter faces. Children born to unmarried parents, Edin points out, are at higher risk of dropping out, getting pregnant as teenagers, struggling to find employment, and going to jail.

As Edin sees it, reestablishing the link between childbearing and marriage in low-income communities requires giving residents reasons to wait to have children—to better align their childbearing and marriage timetables. The only way disadvantaged Americans will delay childbearing, she argues, is if they see other, equally positive, paths available. “There’s either guns or babies, and if people have to make that choice, they’re going to choose babies,” she says. “As long as we sustain such high rates of inequality, it’s going to be really hard to get youth at the bottom to buy into a system that’s unavailable to them. If they have nothing to give them meaning in life and then we try to tell them they shouldn’t have a child, either, we’re asking the impossible of them.”

Read more articles by: Kevin Hartnett

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