The greater the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" in a community, the more likely it is that young men and women will start a family before marriage.
That's according to a study led by sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University that found "rising income inequality" underpins an increase in the number of children who are born outside of wedlock. The study is published in the August issue of the journal American Sociological Review.
"Places with higher income inequality have fewer good jobs for those young adults. They don't foresee ever having the kinds of well-paying career that could support a marriage and family. But they are unwilling to forgo having children. So with good jobs in limited supply and successful marriage looking unlikely, young women and men without college degrees may go ahead and have a child without marrying first," said Cherlin in a release about the study.
Using data on 9,000 individuals from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth who were single and between the ages of 12 and 16 in 1997, the researchers tracked their lives to 2011, when they were between 26 and 31 years old. The researchers compared what led childless young adults to a first birth outside of marriage, either as a single parent or a cohabiting parent, to those who married before having a child. Among factors, they looked at household income gaps and whether communities had "middle-skill" jobs available that would allow those without college degrees to earn enough to live above the federal poverty line.
Communities with a lot of income inequality were less likely to have those types of jobs — their examples of such jobs were "office clerks, factory workers and security guards."
"We find that greater income inequality is associated with a reduced likelihood of transitioning to marriage prior to a first birth for both women and men," the study abstract says. "The association between levels of inequality and transitions to marriage can be partially accounted for by the availability of middle-skilled jobs. Some models also suggest that greater income inequality is associated with a reduced likelihood of transitioning to a first birth while cohabiting."
The researchers said that when young men couldn't earn enough to rise above poverty, they didn't really consider themselves as having good marriage potential, a view shared by their partners. Cherlin said these couples might have children together, but were less likely to make the long-term commitment of marriage. Nearly 60 percent of the children born to the couples studied were born outside of marriage, most often to parents who didn't graduate from college.
"For many young adults, having a child is still one of the most satisfying experiences they can imagine," Cherlin said in a written statement about the study. "And if there's nothing else for a young person to look forward to, at least they can do that. They believe that being married is optional. but having a child is mandatory."
As the Wall Street Journal's Janet Adamy wrote, "What’s striking is that this type of high school-educated American in previous generations married first and then had children. They were part of a middle class that’s been hollowed out as manufacturing jobs moved overseas and unionized work evaporated."
"These people are not the disadvantaged that we’ve long associated with out-of-wedlock child bearing,” Cherlin told WSJ. “They are the people in the middle."
Many experts believe the middle class, once the backbone of the American economy, has been marginalized and that the result can be seen in disparate events, including the ongoing presidential campaign. For instance, the disappearance of living-wage jobs for those with lower education attainment "comes as the middle class has become a shrinking force in the U.S. Some jobs have (been) swept away by a wave of computerization and offshoring, while wages, in not only the U.S., have fallen for the middle class — explaining, for some, why party outsiders and radicals have gained such popularity this election cycle," wrote Fortune's Lucinda Shen.
The research was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation. Study co-authors were David Ribar from the University of Melbourne and senior research data analyst Suzumi Yusutake of Johns Hopkins.
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