Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Race and Childlessness in America, 1988-2002

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Race and Childlessness in America, 1988-2002

Article excerpt

This paper bridges the literature on childlessness, which often focuses on married White couples, to the literature on race and fertility, which often focuses on why total fertility rates and nonmarital births are higher for Blacks than Whites. Despite similarity in levels of childlessness among Black women and White women, Black trends have been largely ignored. Recent research has not adequately explored the extent to which factors driving childlessness may vary among Black and White women. We attempted to fill this gap using the National Survey of Family Growth (N = 3,628) and found many similarities in the predictors of childlessness for both races. Exceptions were the role of marital status and educational attainment.

Key Words: childlessness, fertility, race.

In recent decades, low fertility in industrialized nations has captured the attention of researchers and policymakers. Although fertility levels in the United States are not below replacement levels as in some European countries and Japan, the growth in the proportion of American women who are childless at the end of their childbearing years has sparked research into the causes and consequences of this trend (Abma & Martinez, 2006; Heaton, Jacobson, & Holland, 1999; Jacobson & Heaton, 1991; Park, 2002). Despite similarity in levels of childlessness among Black women and White women, Black childlessness has not been closely examined. This paper bridges the sociological literature on childlessness, which often focuses on married White couples, to the literature on race and fertility, which often focuses on why total fertility rates and nonmarital births are higher for Blacks than Whites. We introduce a new perspective by focusing on the similarity of racial trends in childlessness and by examining how the factors influencing childlessness trends vary, if at all, for Black and White women.

Following World War II, childlessness was generally higher among Whites than Blacks; this began to change by the 1970s, when childlessness for both groups started to converge (Bloom & Trussell, 1984; Boyd, 1989b). In the last 3 decades, childlessness among all American women doubled (Dye, 2005), and there is no longer any racial difference in childlessness levels among women past their reproductive years, a fact often overlooked. Data from the Current Population Survey, presented in Figure 1, show childlessness broken down by race and by education among women aged 40-44. Childlessness for all Black women (indicated by the dotted line) has increased from 15% to 22% and from 10% to 18% for all White women (indicated by the solid line). These racial differences in levels are not statistically significant, suggesting little racial difference in the trend.

Childlessness among Black and White women is more prevalent when limited to those with college degrees, as indicated by the trend lines with triangles. Although there is more fluctuation over time among Black women than White women, college-educated women of both racial groups are 5% to 1 0% more likely to be childless at any given point during the time period than are women of all educational levels.

These figures show that childlessness is a growing social phenomenon for Black and White American women, particularly among those with higher educational attainment. This racial similarity is of particular interest given that most academic investigation of race in family formation trends is premised on the existence of large racial gaps, such as those in marriage, divorce, nonmarital childbearing, and teen childbearing, to name a few. Popular conceptions of childlessness portray it as a trend mainly among White, high-powered career women who either postpone childbearing until it is too late or make a conscious choice to remain child free (Cain, 2001; Carroll, 2000; Hewlett, 2002). Similarly, academic analyses are often limited to samples containing only White women (Heller, Tsai, & Chalfant, 1986; Park, 2002; Poston & Kramer, 1 983) or to samples of Black women past childbearing years that are so small as to preclude separate analyses in their own right (Abma & Martinez, 2006; Heaton et al. …

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