Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Precursors of Nonmarital Fertility in the United States

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Precursors of Nonmarital Fertility in the United States

Article excerpt

The dramatic increase in nonmarital fertility in the United States has generally been explained in terms of either economic circumstances or changing norms and values. We believe that fertility motivations, and the intentions they generate, should be taken into account, and we hypothesize that nonmarital fertility is more likely when children are seen as an important source of social capital. Using data from the first two waves of the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 1,155), we find support for these views. Women who considered the social resource value of children to be high were more likely to have an out-of-wedlock birth than were those who did not. Women who did not intend to have a child were less likely to have a nonmarital conception than were women who did intend to have a child. We conclude that understanding recent increases in nonmarital fertility requires an appreciation of the social benefits that children bring to their mothers, married or not.

Key Words: fertility intentions, nonmarital conception, nonmarital fertility, out-of-wedlock births, social capital.

Since the 1960s, the United States has experienced sharp increases in the level of nonmarital fertility. Some 5% to 6% of American births were to unmarried mothers in the early 1960s, but 32% to 33% of births were to unmarried women in the late 1990s (Table 1 of Ventura & Bachrach, 2000). As a result, in 1999 the United States had over 1.3 million out-of-wedlock births. Although levels have risen for all of the largest race/ethnic groups, race/ethnic differentials remain large. In 1999, 22% of non-Hispanic White births, 69% of Black births, and 42% of Hispanic births were to unmarried women (Table 4 of Ventura & Bachrach). The accompanying rise in cohabitation appears to account for the observed increase in White nonmarital fertility, but cohabiting unions account for less than one fifth of black nonmarital births, and that fraction has declined over time (Wu & Wolfe, 2001, xvii).

A good deal of research has sought to explain the rise in nonmarital fertility, and some evidence for economic factors, demographic constraints, and attitudinal changes have been found. Still, little attention has been given to unmarried women's noneconomic motivations for childbearing. That is a significant omission, given that children can be social resources, providing their mother with social capital. After examining previous approaches to the issue, we discuss motivations for fertility, consider their relevance to nonmarital fertility, and present hypotheses to be tested with nationally representative U.S. data.


Economic perspectives have been at the forefront of research on nonmarital fertility. Willis (1999) used econometric techniques to argue that men are motivated to shift the cost of childbearing onto women, who might agree to have children out-of-wedlock when women's income is high relative to men's and the "marriage market" favors men. The New Home Economics view (e.g., Becker, 1981) sees the increase in women's paid employment as weakening the institution of marriage by reducing role specialization. Implicitly, nonmarital fertility waxes as marriage wanes. The connections between marriage and nonmarital childbearing are complex, however, and have not been carefully examined in the light of the New Home Economics. The role specialization explanation has really not come to grips with either cohabitation or nonmarital fertility, the two most dramatic changes in recent family behavior (Cherlin, 2000).

Another economically oriented approach focuses on how economic circumstances, especially those of men, have led to lower marriage (cf. Moffitt, 2001; Oppenheimer, 1994). American men with less than a college education have had stagnant or declining real wages for much of the past three decades, whereas women's real wages have been rising. As men are less willing or able to marry, births to unmarried women are likely to increase (Abrahamson, 1998; Edin, 2000; Wilson, 1987). …

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