The Midlife Toll of Unwed Childbearing

The Book of Ecclesiastes observes that “of the making of books there is no end.” Likewise, of the research quantifying the negative outcomes of bearing children out of wedlock there is no end. Delivering some of the most recent findings, a study by a team of sociologists led by Kristi Williams of Ohio State uncovers through extensive analysis a strong negative relationship between the health of black and white women at midlife and premarital childbearing. In fact, the correlation is so robust that only a subsequent and enduring marriage to the child’s biological father demonstrates potential to moderate the health penalty. The researchers analyzed data representing 3,391 mothers from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to measure the health of women at age 40 who experienced a premarital first birth before age 36, relative to their married peers whose first birth also occurred before age 36 but within the protective bonds of marriage. In their first set of regressions, the scholars found that these unwed mothers reported significantly lower levels of self-reported health (p<.05), even when controlling for background characteristics. Those background characteristics, which the researchers characterize as “highly significant predictors” of unwed childbearing, included health limitations at baseline, mother’s educational level, and scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test. Additional statistical models only confirmed the correlation. In tests that adjusted for racial and ethnic differences, the health penalty of premarital childbearing remained significant for both black and white women, although not for Hispanic women. Moreover, multivariate propensity-score matching (PSM)—a methodology designed to account for “selection effects” that might account for premarital births—yielded little differences in the results. Those covariates included such things as family status at age 14, poverty status at baseline, health limitations and c
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