When Having Babies Beats Marriage

By Kevin Hartnett

BOSTON, July 10, 2012  (Harvard Magazine) -- 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.”

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