Explaining Teen Childbearing and Cohabitation: Community Embeddedness and Primary Ties*

By Houseknecht, Sharon K.; Lewis, Susan K. | Family Relations, December 2005 | Go to article overview
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Explaining Teen Childbearing and Cohabitation: Community Embeddedness and Primary Ties*

Houseknecht, Sharon K., Lewis, Susan K., Family Relations


This investigation examines whether access to social capital reduces the chance that teens will cohabit or have a nonmaritally conceived birth. Using data from a nationally representative panel study of eighth-grade girls and their parents, we hypothesize that girls who have (and whose families have) dense community ties as well as greater access to primary ties are less likely to have a nonmarital birth and to cohabit as teens and that community embeddedness has an effect net of the effects of primary ties. Our results support this hypothesis. An important policy implication is to increase social relations between adult networks and children that can serve to encourage stable, multigenerational values and discourage "off-time" family formation.

Key Words: adolescent pregnancy, cohabitation, community, family and adolescence, social capital.

The high rate of nonmarital teen births remains one of the most policy-relevant topics of sociological study. From 1970 to 1994, the chance of an unmarried teen girl giving birth doubled from 22.4 to 45.8 births per 1,000 females 15-19 years of age, despite an increased availability of contraception and abortion over much of that period. This trend halted in the 1990s, when both the overall teen birth rate and the nonmarital teen birth rate began to fall. The nonmarital birth rate of teens peaked in 1994 and has continued to decline since then (35.4 births per 1,000 females 15-19 years of age in 2002). Still, the majority of teen births are out of marriage, and unmarried teens today are more likely to bear children than they were 15 years ago (Martin et al., 2003). Even with the recent decline, teen births are still a significant concern.

Cohabitation, like nonmarital childbearing, is an "off-time" family formation event for teens in that it occurs before the ages when most people expect and want it to happen (cf. Cherlin, 2005). The likelihood that a 15- to 19-year old would be currently cohabiting nearly tripled from 1982 (1.5%) to 1995 (4.1%) (A. Chandra, personal communication, March 6, 1998). Although ever-cohabited information was not available for 1982, 8.9% of those 15-19 years of age had cohabited at some time in their lives in 1995 (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002). Despite the increased rate of teen cohabitation, though, strikingly little research has focused on this topic. Studies of cohabitation generally use samples dominated by adults, modeling processes of entry into and exit from cohabitation similarly for all ages. We believe it is valuable to analyze causes of teen cohabitation specifically because indirect evidence suggests that cohabitation represents something different for teens than for adults. For example, the chance of separating rather than marrying is greater for teen cohabitors than for those in their 20s (Manning & Smock, 1998).

In contrast to the sparse information on teen cohabitation, the teen birth rate, especially the high level of nonmarital teen births, has motivated extensive research on causes. Perhaps the most common concern has been the effect of primary ties (cf., Wu, 1996), the connections teens have with family and friends. Unlike primary ties, the effect of community embeddedness (ties that teens and their parents have with their communities) on teen fertility has received little attention.

Using data from a national panel study of eighth-grade girls, we evaluate the influence of community ties and primary ties on teen cohabitation and nonmaritally conceived childbearing. Using Coleman's (1988) concept of social capital to explain variation in outcomes, we distinguish two types of social capital: primary ties and community embeddedness. We extend past studies that have focused primarily on primary ties as correlates of teen pregnancy. Our objective is to see whether teens' and their parents' ties to the larger community also have effects longitudinally on cohabitation as well as on nonmaritally conceived births and net of the effect of primary ties.

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Explaining Teen Childbearing and Cohabitation: Community Embeddedness and Primary Ties*


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