Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Associations of Childhood Religious Attendance, Family Structure, and Nonmarital Fertility across Cohorts

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Associations of Childhood Religious Attendance, Family Structure, and Nonmarital Fertility across Cohorts

Article excerpt

This article considers associations among childhood family structure, childhood religious service attendance, and the probability of having a nonmarital first birth before age 30 for non-Hispanic White women born 1944 to 1964 using data from the 1988 and 1995 waves of the National Survey of Family Growth (N = 5,995). We found that attending religious services weekly during childhood and growing up in a 2-biological-parent family were associated with lower odds of having had a nonmarital first birth. These associations were quite stable across cohorts, although religious attendance was less associated with nonmarital fertility for the youngest cohort. We estimate that changes in these childhood experiences account for 22% of the increase in nonmarital first births across these cohorts.

Key Words: cohort, family structure, religion, social trends/social change.

The decoupling of marriage and childbearing is one of the most important changes in American families since 1960. The share of children born outside of marriage in the United States skyrocketed from 5% to 33% between 1960 and 1999 (Ventura & Bachrach, 2000, p. 17). For non-Hispanic White women, the share of nonmarital births grew from 2% to 27% over the same period (Ventura & Bachrach, p. 29). This change represents a fundamental reorientation in the organization of family life. Additionally, because many disadvantages are associated with nonmarital childbearing (Korenman, Kaestner, & Joyce, 2001) and increases in nonmarital fertility have been concentrated among less advantaged women, the growth in nonmarital childbearing may exacerbate social inequalities (Ellwood & Jencks, 2004; McLanahan, 2004).

Previous research has considered how many factors - including changes in the timing and stability of marriage, the rise in cohabitation, economic changes, and technological shocks - have contributed to the growing nonmarital birth rate (Ellwood & Jencks, 2004). Few studies, however, have considered cohort differences in nonmarital fertility (but see Wu, 2008) or the role of childhood experiences. This inattention is surprising because cohort succession has long been considered the engine of social change (Ryder, 1965), and the relationship between family of origin characteristics and adult family formation has been well researched. Most previous research on nonmarital fertility trends has used a period perspective, but the trend in nonmarital births shows a more gradual increase than we would expect if the trend were responding to a single event, such as the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion or the introduction of the birth control pill. Thus, we argue that a cohort perspective is more appropriate for studying nonmarital births. Additionally, previous research shows that childhood family structure and religious involvement are associated with adult family formation (Eggebeen & Dew, 2009; Sigle-Rushton & McLanahan, 2004), and the cohorts that experienced the largest increases in nonmarital births also experienced large declines in the percentage who grew up in a two-biological-parent family and attended religious services weekly (Figure 1). As is well documented in the literature, marriage patterns - including average age at marriage (Fitch & Ruggles, 2000) and the percentage of women ever marrying (Goldstein & Kenney, 2001) - and fertility levels (Morgan, 1996) have also changed across cohorts, providing further reasons why a cohort perspective is a more appropriate lens with which to study nonmarital births.

This article examines how cohort changes in childhood family structure and religious attendance contributed to the decoupling of marriage and fertility for non-Hispanic White women born between 1944 and 1964 using data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). In so doing, this analysis provides evidence about (a) how associations between childhood family and religious experiences and the probability of having a nonmarital first birth have changed across cohorts, (b) whether selection is a likely explanation for any observed associations, (c) whether age at first sex is a mechanism linking childhood experiences and nonmarital fertility, and (d) what share of the increase in the nonmarital birth rate across cohorts may be attributable to cohort changes in exposure to these two childhood experiences. …

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