Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Historical Changes and Life Course Variation in the Determinants of Premarital Childbearing

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Historical Changes and Life Course Variation in the Determinants of Premarital Childbearing

Article excerpt

Longitudinal data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics for a sample of 2,794 women observed between 1968 and 1993 are used to examine whether the impact of established sociodemographic determinants of the risk of a first premarital birth has changed over time or varies by age. Event history analyses reveal that the risk of a premarital birth is greater for Black women and Latinas than for White women and non-Latinas, that it declines with the socioeconomic status of the family of origin, is greater for women growing up in a mother-only family, increases with neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantage, and is higher in metropolitan areas and in areas outside the South. Over time, the racial difference in the risk of a first premarital birth has declined, a trend that cannot be attributed to changing racial differentials in family background characteristics or geographic location. In contrast, the difference in premarital childbearing risks between Latinas and non-Latinas has widened. The inverse impact of childhood family income on women's risk of a premarital birth weakens significantly as women age.

Key Words: ethnicity, life course, neighborhoods, premarital childbearing, race.

Bearing a child outside marriage remains a significant event in the lives of many American women. Countless studies reveal the deleterious effects of premarital childbearing both for young unmarried women and for their children, as well as for society at large (Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Morgan, 1987; Garfinkel & McLanahan, 1986; Hernandez, 1993). Accordingly, over the past several decades a voluminous literature has explored the social, demographic, and economic determinants of premarital childbearing (Miller & Moore, 1990; National Research Council, 1987; Voydanoff & Donnelly, 1990). Yet, for the most part, these studies have not considered the possibility that the primary sociodemographic determinants of premarital childbearing have changed over time. Such an omission is surprising, given the changing normative climate surrounding family issues (Thornton, 1989) and the possibility that socioeconomic differentials in nonmarital fertility have changed in recent decades (Cherlin, 1992; Smith, Morgan, & Koropeckyj-Cox, 1996). Popular imagery of outof-wedlock childbearing-perhaps most glaringly reflected in political and media debates over the television character, Murphy Brown-seems to suggest that unmarried motherhood has become increasingly an elective lifestyle, less tied today than in the past to low socioeconomic status, risky sexual behavior, and unplanned pregnancy. Yet few studies have attempted to determine whether socioeconomic differentials in rates of premarital childbearing have, indeed, declined over time. Nor has prior research examined whether the relative impact of these determinants varies across stages in young women's life course, despite the increasing percentage of nonmarital births to older women (Foster & Hoffman, 1996) and calls for studies that examine the contingent and variable nature of life course pathways (Hogan & Astone, 1986). Prior studies have focused almost exclusively on teenage out-of-wedlock childbearing, with the implicit assumption that the determinants of out-of-wedlock childbearing among teens differ from those among older women. But such an assumption has yet to be tested rigorously.

This article examines whether conventional sociodemographic determinants of the risk of having a premarital birth vary either historically or over women's life course. The analysis uses data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from 1968 to 1993 for a sample of women aged 15-38 years. Event history models that incorporate time-- varying covariates that interact with historical period and respondent's age are estimated to determine whether the strength of conventional sociodemographic predictors of premarital childbearing has changed over this quarter century and whether these factors have different impacts on the likelihood of bearing a child out-of-wedlock at different stages in the life course. …

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