Last month, the New York Times highlighted a milestone: 59% of all births to women under 30 years old now occur outside of marriage. That’s a significant shift, and one that has profound implications. Regardless of whether or not one believes that having children out of wedlock is a moral issue, the truth is that research shows it puts children at an elevated risk of poverty, failing in school and suffering emotional and behavioral problems.
It’s certainly not always the case that single-parent households are less stable than the alternative, but single mothers often don’t have the same resources that married women do. Census stats place as many as 27% of single mothers and their children below the poverty line.
The Times article doesn’t point to any simple reasons for this rise in single motherhood, but does point to some greater social trends. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance of couples cohabiting without marrying – and, sometimes, having children. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this, and some parents do manage to provide a stable, two-parent household for their children while unmarried. In some countries these relationships are not meaningfully different from marriages. But cohabiting couples in the US are twice as likely to break up than married couples.
Women are also experiencing greater economic freedom than in years past, with the average wages of women without a college degree rising by 8% over the last 30 years. Men without a degree, on the other hand, have seen their wages slip by the same amount. This more equal footing is allowing more women to forgo marriages that, in the past, may have been the only way to support their families. It may also make marriage a less appealing option financially, as the combined household income can disqualify some needy families from government aid and services.
What’s really interesting is that marriage rates have held steady in one particular demographic. College graduates still overwhelmingly marry before having children – prompting one sociologist, Frank Furstenberg, to tell the Times, “Marriage has become a luxury good.”
Why is this? The Times gives some thought-provoking reasons. More educated men are more likely to treat their wives and girlfriends as equal partners in a relationship, leading to more satisfying marriages. Fewer working-class women are willing to settle for marriages they don’t find fulfilling – opting to remain unmarried, even when they are in relationships with the children’s fathers or the fathers are actively involved in their children’s lives.
Despite grumblings about the moral decline of modern society, it’s hard to see this as a bad thing. Women, who are increasingly able to support children on their own, are refusing to marry men who don’t make them happy when they don’t need to rely on those men for financial support. While there’s certainly some cause for alarm in these statistics, there’s also some cause for celebration.
Photo credit: Pawel Loj