This piece is the second in a series of blog posts on Isabel Sawhill’s new book
Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage
. To read yesterday’s piece, click
Births outside of marriage are increasing most among those without college degrees and in cohabiting couples – as well as for those in their twenties, as Isabel Sawhill and Joanna Venator correctly note. This trend is driven as much by economic as social change, and so requires economic and well as social solutions.
Non-Marital Births: A Middle America Phenomenon
Non-marital birth rates have risen fastest among twenty-somethings with a high-school degree, and perhaps some college courses, but not a bachelor’s degree. It is among this non-adolescent, moderately-educated group that the most change has occurred. In 1980, the childbearing patterns of the moderately-educated were closer to college graduates than to high school dropouts. Today, it’s the other way around: the childbearing patterns of the moderately-educated have moved closer to the dropouts than to the college graduates.
Most of the increase in nonmarital births has also occurred among cohabiting couples rather than single (unpartnered) parents. A majority of nonmarital births now occur to cohabiters. This looks like a positive development, since it could signal an increase in two-parent families as a context for childrearing.
Indeed, when the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study first showed many unmarried women were cohabiting when they gave birth, the finding was hailed as a “magic moment” that could lead to more marriage. But it is now clear that the researchers were observing a magic millisecond: dissolution rates for these couples over the subsequent years were very high. Moreover, other studies have shown that at least one-third of couples who were cohabiting at birth did not move in together until after the woman got pregnant. It is hard to be optimistic about the well-being of children born in these often short-term unions.
LARCs, but also the Labor Market
What might be done to lower birth rates among unmarried, high-school-educated men and women? Advocating abstinence is clearly not going to work. Isabel Sawhill, in her important book Generation Unbound, urges a large-scale effort to increase the percentage of unmarried women using long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) such as IUDs and hormonal implants. If this effort were to succeed, it would undoubtedly have a positive effect. Just how successfully it could be done is another matter. The same “drifting” rather than “planning” that results in unintended pregnancies may cause some young women to avoid the medical visits necessary to obtain LARCs.
It is unlikely we have more drifters and fewer planners than we did a few decades ago. Rather, I would point to the weakening of the job market for people with high school degrees in recent decades, as manual employment has moved overseas or been replaced by computerized machinery. By all means, let’s urge young adults to put off childbearing until they are confident they are in stable relationships, and make LARCs more readily available to them. But we must also address the labor market barriers that have made it harder for moderately-educated Americans to find the kinds of jobs that can support a long-term relationship.