The Slide into Parenthood and Out of the Middle Class

by Barbara Ray

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Twelve years ago, Crystal (her name is changed on her request) was in her high school’s  locker room with her girlfriend waiting the results of a pregnancy test. Crystal was 17. And she was devastated. She and her boyfriend had dated for two years and they’d recently decided to go “all the way,” as we used to say. Crystal got pregnant after her first time. She would hide her pregnancy under baggy sweatshirts for another five months, until the rumors swirling around the school finally made it to her grandparents, who then told Crystal’s parents.

Her story at the time—2001– was not uncommon, although it was considerably less common than 10 or even 40 years prior. It’s seldom acknowledged, but in the 1950s, fully one-half of all teenagers who married were pregnant. Indeed, the highest rate of teen pregnancy was not in the 1980s or 1990s, but in the 1950s. The rate of teen births peaked in 1957 at 96 births for every 1,000 teens.

In the 1950s and into the 1960s, couples were having sex before marriage, but unlike in later years, they were then marrying. Single mothers were rare. However, many of these marriages would end in divorce. As sociologist Frank Furstenberg writes in his book, “Destinies of Disadvantage,” increasingly families began to realize that these marriages weren’t the best idea and by the 1960s, early marriage was on the wane. The result was more nonmarital births among teens. And that’s when the problem caught the public and policymakers’ attention.

Since then, save for one blip in the 1990s, the teen birth rate has steadily declined. When Crystal found herself pregnant in 2001, the teen birth rate was 45/1,000. Today it is 34.

While good news indeed, the trend has not disappeared. It has just moved up the age scale. As we document in the Knot Yet report, twenty-somethings are the new teen moms. As marriage is delayed, and as marriage and children are increasingly unlinked, the rise in single motherhood is becoming more common in the twenties. Today, only 23% of unmarried births are to teens, while 60% are to women in their twenties.

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Many of these pregnancies are accidents, just like Crystal’s. As the Knot Yet authors write, “About half of all births to unmarried twenty-something women are ‘unintended,’ and the rate of unintended pregnancy is dramatically higher among women with less education.”

But while an accident, those pregnancies not necessarily a shock, like it was to Crystal. There’s a deep ambivalence about getting pregnant among some women in their twenties, particularly the large group of women with a high school degree and maybe some college (more than half of the U.S. population in other words), whom the authors call Middle American women.

Women identify deeply with motherhood. But as marriage fades as a prospect for Middle American women—whether because of economics or because marriage and children have become unlinked societally—it becomes increasingly likely that they will slide into motherhood; they might not make a conscious choice to become pregnant, but they’re not exactly vigilant either.

Even among young people who said it was important to avoid pregnancy right now, more than one-third went on to say that they would be happy if they got pregnant. As the Knot Yet authors note, “Not surprisingly, this ambivalence rises as education levels, marriage prospects, and job opportunities fall.”

Or as my friend Maria Kefalas once put it, “college is the best contraception.”

The ambivalence finds another green light in their assumption that they’ve met their soul mate and will likely marry him or her. A surprisingly high number of young people surveyed say they expect to marry their current partner—ranging from 47% to 68%. Given that, one can see why it might be easy to forget to use the contraception. If the couple is living together, the decision (or non-decision as it may be) is even easier. As the Knot Yet report documents, about half of unwed births to twenty-somethings are to cohabiting couples.

A recent study by the CDC on cohabitation found more evidence of this slide into parenthood. “As for having children, 19 percent of couples who lived together had a baby within the first year of living together, compared to 15 percent in 2005.”

And note this dramatic change in one generation: “Only 19 percent of women who got pregnant said it led to their nuptials. In 1995, that number was 32 percent.”

To me, the alarm bells start to ring not because of a moral conflict about having children outside of marriage, but because of the high, high risk of slipping from the middle class that doing so poses for the kids and their parents.

The twenty-somethings just now entering the workforce have an uphill climb, and adding a child to that climb will only make it worse. For every bright young woman or man with a college degree and with it an economic safety net, there are three young people who are losing their shot at the middle class as wages for those with less education slide and jobs become less stable with fewer benefits and security.

As Brookings Institution’s  Isabel Sawhill  put it in a 2010 report, if you want to join the middle class today you have to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time, and marry before you have children. “If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class [$50,000 a year for a family of three] or above rise from 56 to 74 percent.”

Having a child as a single mother dramatically increases the chances of poverty. And because most of this trend in single motherhood is bypassing those with a college degree, we also risk exacerbating the already high inequality in this country. As others have noted, the well-educated tend to marry each other, and the cycle continues.