First Comes the ‘Marriage Gap,’ Then Comes the ‘Baby Gap’


There’s a widening gap between the baby-having of married women, who tend to be more educated and more affluent, and their less-educated, less-financially-secure, unmarried peers.

A growing body of research, including work by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin, raises the possibility that because people like to feel financially secure before taking the marriage plunge, the rise of income inequality has divided Americans into those who marry and those who don’t.

Now this could be playing out with childbearing, too.

America’s recessionary “baby bust” has clearly leveled off now, but we’ve yet to see the birth recovery one would expect as high unemployment falls and growth picks up.

For every 1,000 women of childbearing age in the U.S., there were just 62.5 births in 2013, down slightly from 63 births in 2012. (The CDC released this particular figure last month but this week fleshed out all its numbers with more demographic detail.)

The nation’s so-called total fertility rate—the estimated number of children a U.S. woman will have over her lifetime—edged down 1% to 1.86 children, below the 2.1 children every couple needs to have to replace themselves.

The latest numbers partly reflect women putting off children and reducing family size. Birth rates for U.S. women ages 35 to 39 are the highest in nearly five decades.

But lower fertility—and specifically, the roughly 2.3 million “missing” or foregone births between 2008 and 2013, according to demographer Ken Johnson—could hurt the economy in coming years by pushing down consumer demand and limiting the size of the labor force and tax base.

For decades, birth rates for married women fell as women had fewer children. Birth rates for unmarried women rose, with more women having children out of wedlock or in cohabiting unions.

Roughly four in 10 U.S. births are now to unmarried women, and the majority of “nonmarital” births (58%) are to cohabiting couples—not women on their own.

Since the recession ended, these trends have flipped. Now married women are having more kids, and unmarried women are having fewer. Birth rates for unmarried women have fallen for five straight years.

One contributor to this drop is the phenomenal decline in teen births. Birth rates for teenagers aged 15 to 17 dropped a whopping 13% in 2013 from 2012.

But that’s not the whole story. While birth rates for married women aged 25 to 29 are up 3% since 2010, there’s been a 4% decline for unmarried women of the same age.

Among women aged 30 to 34, the married birth rate rose 5% from 2010. Unmarried? 0%.

Broadly speaking, married women in America appear to be picking up where they left off, delaying child-rearing to build careers, and then having kids in their late 20s and early 30s. Unmarried women, however—even those in potentially secure relationships—may be struggling not only to get married but to have kids, maybe due to financial insecurity.

First comes the “marriage gap,” then comes the “baby gap.”



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