The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Learning a Bad Pattern from Unmarried Parents

Are young men and women especially likely to have a child outside of wedlock if their own parents were unmarried?  Though the answer to this question might seem obvious, some commentators insist on interpreting the apparent effects of parental marital status against the backdrop of other socioeconomic variables.  Offering a sophisticated new analysis of the intergenerational dynamics of out-of-wedlock childbearing, researchers at the University of Wisconsin—Madison recently completed a study establishing that, regardless of other socioeconomic characteristics, sons and daughters of unmarried parents are significantly more likely to have a child out of wedlock than are peers born to married parents.

The researchers begin their inquiry aware that “over the last half century, nonmarital childbearing has increased dramatically in the United States,” rising from “6% of all births in 1960 to fully 41% of all births in 2009, with much higher proportions among racial and ethnic minorities.”  To better understand this trend, the Wisconsin scholars parse nationally representative data collected in 2002 from 7,643 women and 4,928 men ages 15 to 44.  These data reveal, unsurprisingly, that  “a larger proportion of men and women had a nonmarital first birth if their parents were unmarried at the time of their own birth: 26% of men born to unmarried parents subsequently had a nonmarital first birth compared to 15% of those whose parents were married at their birth.  The difference is even greater for women, with 39% of women born to unmarried parents having a nonmarital first birth compared to 18% of women whose parents were married at their own birth.”

A clear linkage persists between parents’ marital status and children’s propensity to have a child out of wedlock even when the researchers deploy a statistical model taking parents’ socioeconomic status into account.  The researchers indeed report that in this model “the hazard ratio for respondents’ risk of having a nonmarital first birth if their parents had a nonmarital birth decreases only slightly (from 1.48 to 1.43), suggesting that socioeconomic background plays a very limited role in men’s and women’s risk” of having a child out of wedlock.  This finding clearly indicates that “the marital context of childbearing is indeed transmitted inter-generationally” and that “parents’ nonmarital childbearing is associated with offspring’s nonmarital childbearing net of selection on parental socioeconomic background.”

To explain how parents’ marital status affects children’s likelihood of having children out of wedlock, the researchers focus on family stability.  “For both men and women,” they note, “more than 50% of those whose parents were not married at their birth broke up by the time they were age 14 compared to less than 20% of those whose parents were married at the time of their birth.”  Further statistical analysis reveals that “parents’ breaking up by the time offspring are age 14 significantly increases their risk of having a nonmarital first birth.”

Additional parsing of the data indicates that “mothers’ employment increased the risk of offspring’s nonmarital childbearing.”  This finding makes sense to the researchers as they reflect on why “unmarried mothers—at least those who become single mothers—may have greater impetus to work (or work more hours) as the primary breadwinner in their household.”  Previous studies, the researchers acknowledge, have established that “children of employed mothers receive less supervision than those of mothers who are not employed, particularly during after-school hours” and that “maternal employment is associated with higher levels of negative youth behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and sexual activity.”

Educational attainment also emerges as a determinant of out-of-wedlock childbearing.  The researchers’ data indicate that “each higher level of education is associated with a lower likelihood of nonmarital childbearing (compared to less than high school education).”  Predictably, the offspring of unmarried parents are significantly more likely to receive higher education than are peers born to married parents: the researchers report that “35% and 37%, respectively, of the men and women of unmarried parents have less than a high school degree, compared to 21% of men and 18% of women whose parents were married at their birth.”  The data also show that, compared to peers born to unmarried parents, “a higher percentage of both men and women of married parents have at least some college and are much more likely to have a college degree.”

Nonetheless, the combined effects of family stability, maternal employment, and educational attainment do not fully account for the strong linkage between parents’ marital status and children’s propensity to have a child out of wedlock.  “Even after including all of our mediating factors,” the researchers conclude, “being born to unmarried parents is still associated with an increased risk of offspring having their own first birth outside of marriage.”   The researchers consequently concede, “It is possible that social norms and values may be transmitted across generations such that offspring born to unmarried parents are more open to themselves having a child outside of marriage.”

In the transmission of values fostering out-of-wedlock childbearing, the researchers see a reason for concern.  After all, “nonmarital childbearing across two generations . . . [entails] likely negative consequences for offspring as children and as they transition to adulthood.”  These are consequences, the researchers fear, that are likely to “diminish the well being of children born to unmarried parents—extending into adulthood—and may have implications for growing societal inequality within and across generations.”

Perhaps it is time for policymakers and media commentators to stop regarding out-of-wedlock childbearing with insouciance.

(Robin S. Högnäs and Marcia J. Carlson, “‘Like Parent, Like Child?’: The Intergenerational Transmission of Nonmarital Childbearing,” Social Science Research 41.6 [2012]: 1,480-94.)