The Connection Between Unemployment and Unmarried Parents

Originally posted at

The states with more single men without jobs have higher rates of nonmarital births.


“Le berceau” by Berthe Morisot

The Census Bureau has a new report on nonmarital births. Based on the American Community Survey—the largest survey of its kind, and the only one big enough to track all states—the report shows that 35.7 percent of births in 2011 were to unmarried mothers.

Beneath the headline number, two patterns in the data will receive a lot of attention: education and race/ethnicity. I have a brief comment on both patterns.

The education patterns show a very steep dropoff in nonmarital births as women’s education increases. From 57 percent unmarried among those who didn’t finish high school to just nine percent among those who have graduated college.


Given the hardships faced by single mothers (especially in the United States), it looks like women with more education are making the more rational decision to avoid childbearing when they’re not married. And I don’t doubt that’s partly the explanation. But we need to think about marriage, education and childbearing as linked events that unfold over time. The average high-school dropout mother was 26, while the average college-graduate mother was 33. Delaying childbearing and continuing education are decisions that are made together, based on the opportunities people have. And completing more education increases both thelikelihood of marriage and the earning potential of one’s spouse.

So I think you could tell the story like this: Women with better educational opportunities delay childbearing, which increases their marriage prospects, and makes it more likely they will be married and financially better off when they have children in their 30s.

The differences in nonmarital birth rates between race/ethnic groups in the U.S. are shocking, from about two-thirds for black and American Indian women to 29 percent for whites and 11 percent for Asians.


This pattern is related to the education trend, naturally, but that’s not the whole story. One aspect of the story is race/ethnic geography of opportunity in this country. I’ve written before about the shortage of employed men available for women to marry, a particular expression of racial disparity first popularized by sociologist William Julius Wilson a quarter century ago.

Using the new numbers on nonmarital birth rates for each state from the Census report, I compared them to the male non-employment rate—specifically, the percentage of unmarried men ages 22-50 that are not currently employed. Here’s the relationship:


The states with more single men out of work have higher rates of nonmarital births. Single mother, meet jobless man.

My conclusion from these patterns is that unmarried parenthood is primarily a symptom of lack of opportunity, especially for education and employment. Surely that’s not the whole story. Maybe we should be persuading people to marry younger or shaming them into avoiding parenthood. But I think those approaches increase stigma more than they change behavior or improve wellbeing—Pew surveys show that 77 percent of people already say raising a family is easier if you’re married and only 12 percent of single people say they don’t want to marry. So who needs convincing? Meanwhile, if we addressed the problems of education and employment, is there any doubt family security and stability would improve, and with it the wellbeing of children and their parents?

15 thoughts on “The Connection Between Unemployment and Unmarried Parents

  1. Thanks for the article.
    Personally I think that is the whole story! I don’t think anyone needs convincing, it’s just poor judgement and lack of opportunity either by circumstance or other driving factors. It plays a huge role in the choices we make.

    If we can provide more stability those same people become more self sufficient by way of making smarter choices that don’t burden not only themselves but our country as a whole.

    Thanks for the article, definitely thought provoking.


  2. Still waiting for all the well-funded conservative think tanks that are clamoring for a “return” to stigmatizing unmarried mothers (as if they ever stopped!) to also advocate stigmatizing all the college-educated (and non-college-educated, but well-compensated: i.e.: firefighters, cops, skilled trades) heterosexual men who insist upon marrying college-educated women. Why reserve the lectures on the importance of lowering ones standards for a spouse to working-class women? /snark


  3. Great post, Philip. You really cut to the chase. One question. You “tell the story” for college educated women rather well: ie, they delay having children until they achieve economic stability. What about the flip side? Why do poorer, less educated women with few marriage prospects still have children despite facing economic instability?

    I think that question has to be answered for your broader argument to be true. If you look at the economics of it, a working class woman with a community college degree will not improve her situation by having a kid, much less 1.7 kids. And given the relative cost of contraception vs abortion vs child rearing, why are working class women choosing to forego consistent contraception use? Or failing contraception, not availing themselves of adoption/abortion? The cost of contraception is simply too low compared to the cost of adoption, much less the cost of child rearing, for working class women to whimsically ignore contraception.

    As you’ve structured “the story” above, only college educated women are behaving in an economically rational way. But I would imagine their peers with a high school diploma & with a AA degree or also economically rational.


    1. Thank you. The question is not so much why having children is economically beneficial for poor, single women. The question is why it is not harmful for them to have children at earlier ages, and when they are not married. One reason is that they do not have as much to lose in terms of forgone earnings from interrupting their careers at an earlier age. Another reason is that poor women in general face greater health risks, so that waiting to older ages is riskier, and it is also risky to count on their mothers be able to help them as their mothers age and enter the stage of life when their health risks multiply as well.

      Also, remember all that stuff about how motherhood is the most challenging yet rewarding job in the world? Well if we are going to say that a bad middle-class women, we should consider it for poor and working-class women as well. Given the lack of good career opportunities, and the lack of potential spouses with good career opportunities, maybe they are seizing the challenge, and the rewards, associated with motherhood because they are ambitious and want to improve their lives and make a good life for their children.


  4. So, if there would be more single males with jobs, there would be less out-of-wedlock births, and that would be good? What about reducing the number of people competing for the jobs? Like, I don;t know, reducing immigration or something?


  5. szopeno, your comment on immigration doesn’t make any sense to me. US citizens aren’t seeking the sub-minimum-wage, no Social Security, no unemployment benefits, no workers comp jobs held by undocumented immigrants—US citizens are already dissatisfied with the low-wage, no-benefit, de-facto temporary jobs far too many of them have. They already find such jobs inadequate—but undocumented people don’t have access to those jobs.

    Thank you, Philip, for reminding people that working class women are still human beings who make decisions on a human scale as well as the economic scale.


  6. @Lubiddu, but immigration increases a supply of jobs. Without it, maybe the low-wage jobs would be higher paid, since there would be less people competing for them. Actually, there is no “maybe” – i think it is pretty accepted truth that immigration helps the rich and middle class, while it adversely impacts the poorer segments of society. Exactly those segments, where the ratio of birth-of–of-wedlock is higher.

    I never understood why the right is against the immigation, while the left is pro. It should be exactly the other way around. Left should represent the poorer, so they should be against immigration.


      1. But this is relevant only if someone is believing in some kind of utilitarian morality. The point is whether government has a duty to protect the citizens and care for the citizens, or the duty to care for whole world. When the primary duty conflicts with secondary duty, primary duty wins.

        What’s more, if immigrants leave their countries, they might gain, but they might well create net loss for their countries and people who still live there. Therefore, if you support the gains for the immigrants, you support net losses for those who have not left their countries. If you really would care for other’s people welfare, then it’s much better to help THEIR countries to be as wealthy as USA, not invite subset of them into USA, or you would argue for bars for high-educated immigrants (since they are exactly those kind of people, who should stay in their countries and make them better).

        E.g. immigration from Poland into Great Britain surely increased lifes of immigrants, brought value to the middle and upper class of GB and also for polish political elites (because this reduced unemployment => reduced the pressure for the elites to change anything in our corrupt political system), but decreased value for british lower classes and for pretty much a lot of other people in Poland (in ageing country, an event of over young million people cannot be something which counts as a gain).

        (Utilitarian arguments is worded something like this: you have to attach some value to some other people, not living in your country. No matter how small that value, it has to be higher than 0. Therefore, if the immigration creates the losses for the native population, it’s more than balanced by gains to immigrants. But this is obviously failed argument, because while it assumes that you can express values in quantifiable numbers. But while I value any human’s welfare, there is no possibility to compare how I value welfare of my daughter, my collegues, friends and others in any other kind than in hierarchical. I value my daughter’s welfare more than my friends, my friends more than the others, but it;s impossible to say how much more. Anyone, who says than “gains to welfare of thousands of friends surely must balance losses to the welfare of you daughter, or otherwise you don’t really value welfare of your friends” is misguided.)


  7. Without it, maybe the low-wage jobs would be higher paid, since there would be less people competing for them

    You are making the assumption that the power of the individual worker is equivalent to the power of the individual employer. This isn’t true. Theoretically, fewer workers could mean higher wages, but it could also (and does, if we look at the current and historical record) mean that the employer just pockets the profits, knowing that he or she can count on enough of a share of desperate workers to fill his or her needs. You also aren’t looking at the power structures in place to guarantee a swing of power towards the employers; for example, vagrancy laws, anti-panhandling laws, work requirements for public assistance, barriers to organizing for collective bargaining, etc.

    What created higher wages for workers, and created the “middle class” (as popularly imagined in the US): labor unions. Labor unions were (and are) the only countervailing force to the economic power of employers. Legislation that protects workers from the abuse of the economic power of employers exists solely because of the organizing power of labor unions.

    And those labor unions? Were successful at organizing because of immigration. That’s right—you can thank all the good folks that came through Ellis Island (and Angel Island, and other points of entry) for the 8-hour day, decent wages and working conditions, and other workplace amenities labeled as “middle class” in the US today.


  8. La bubu, but it’s irrevelant whether your argument is true or not. The past immigration already created labor unions, right? And the legislation does exist or not? New immigration is merely sipping away power from the lower-paid workers. Moreover, the power of individual employer will inevitably rise if there is higher competition for said employer, unless the laws will somehow try to prevent the rise of employer’s power


  9. Also, education is not a static thing. Unmarried parents are statistically more likely to be young–17,18,19–ages when they realistically could not have finished high school or college yet. So at least part of the association between unmarried parenting and education may simply be due to the confounding factor of age. And although having a child at a young age may make it more difficult logistically to finish college, some women find that it gives them more motivation to finish college or vocational school.

    Also, no discussion of “rational decisions” surrounding childbirth is complete without a discussion of the myriad ways women are prevented from accessing the supposedly legal service of abortion, and how financial privilege plays into that.


  10. Also, as probably stated either in the article above or one of the related articles, young women with no education and no marriage prospects may see having children as a rational decision…the more children they have, the more state benefits they obtain (up to a total of 3 children).


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