Love, Marriage, and then Children – A Vanishing Sequence

In the years after World War II veterans came home, married and the baby boom began. Frank Sinatra summed up the ethos of a generation:

“Love and marriage. Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.”

But those days are long gone. Nationally, non-marital births represent over 35% of all births.
Marriage Among the Poor:

The sequence of getting married and then having children is especially rare among the poor. A study of fathers in high-poverty areas of Philadelphia and inner suburbs of Camden, New Jersey uncovered countless stories of precarious relationships. (“Daddy, Baby: Momma, Maybe “in Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America.) Monte, a 21-year-old white male, described a typical sequence of events:

I had just come out of a juvenile institution. I think I just turned 17…and I started going with her friend. And then one day she came around and we started talking, then I went with her and left her friend, and me and her got together and started having kids together, then we got closer and closer. Then we started living together.

These relationships tend to get more serious after the birth of the child. Fathers may proclaim the desire to get married but the actual tying of the knot keeps receding into the distance. The mother may wonder whether the father can provide a stable income. The fathers know this and may resent it.

Jeff, a 47-year-old black father, commented: “I hear a lot of people say that love is good but I am telling you, money will rule over a relationship real quick.” As time moves on, the father typically drifts away from the mother and child.

Marriage Among the Working Middle Class:

While non-marital births among the poor are common fodder for the news media, less well-known is how dramatically things are changing for the working, middle class. These are young adults with a high school education and some college but not a four-year degree. They represent about 51% of the young adult population.

Increasingly, couples in this group may cohabitate and have children but not marry. In a summary of the research on this group – The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America – researchers W. Bradford Wilcox and Andrew J. Cherlin observe that: “The nation’s retreat from marriage, which started in low-income communities in the 1960s and 1970s, has now moved into Middle America.”

Wilcox and Cherlin state that “By the late 2000s, moderately educated American women were more than seven times as likely to bear a child outside of marriage as compared to their college-educated peers.” In future Summer Updates, we will take a closer look at this group of working class young adults and why marriage is going out of fashion among them.


Posted: July 3, 2014

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