Unmarried Parents – the Fathers

It takes two to tango, so when public-health officials examine the troubling rise in out-of-wedlock births, they need to look not only at unmarried mothers. Unmarried fatherhood thus defines the focus of a study recently completed by scholars from Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The researchers begin their inquiry acutely aware “that nonmarital fatherhood has consequences for men’s future socioeconomic trajectories and well-being and is linked to disadvantaged outcomes for children.” Underscoring the need for this inquiry, the Columbia and Madison scholars point to “the high and rising fraction of births outside of marriage, the instability and low economic resources in nonmarital unions, and the importance of fathers for children’s development and well-being.”

Such concerns are hard to dismiss given that “the prevalence of nonmarital births in the United States has increased dramatically in recent decades, with the fraction of births occurring outside of marriage rising sixfold in the latter half of the twentieth century.” Recent statistics, in fact, reveal that “in 2010, fully 41% of all U.S. births occurred to unmarried parents, with even higher proportions among racial and ethnic minorities: 53% of Hispanic births and 73% of black births.” No wonder, then, that “nonmarital childbearing has generated considerable attention from both researchers and policymakers alike, particularly with respect to the implications for women and children.”

To identify the young men most likely to father a child out of wedlock, the researchers pore over two nationally representative sets of data. One of these comes from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), based on interviews conducted in 2002 with 4,928 men born between 1957 and 1987. The other comes from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) for the 1979 cohort, a survey providing information about 6,403 men born between 1957 and 1964, all interviewed annually between 1979 and 1994 and biennially between 1996 and 2006.

As they analyze these two large pools, the researchers reach conclusions that are “quite consistent across the two data sets, providing greater confidence in the results.” Among the results commanding a high level of confidence are those indicating that “men who had a nonmarital first birth are disproportionately black and Hispanic, [and when compared to peers who have not fathered a child out of wedlock] are more likely to have fathers with less than high school education, [and] are less likely to have lived with both parents at age 14.”

The family structure that young men experience as adolescents unambiguously helps determine the likelihood that they will father a child out of wedlock. “We find,” write the researchers, “that childhood family structure matters in both data sets; the hazard of nonmarital fatherhood is lower among those who lived with both biological parents during adolescence.”

The researchers are breaking new ground with their statistical analysis linking nonmarital fatherhood to adolescent family structure. But they plausibly interpret this finding against the backdrop of “studies [that] have found that young men who did not live with both biological parents at age 14 are more likely to have an early birth.” Given that an unmarried mother cannot rely on a husband for economic support and that a birth out of wedlock means violation of religious beliefs, the researchers also plausibly interpret their findings in the context of previous studies showing that “maternal employment is linked to higher levels of youth sexual activity” and establishing that “religious attendance [is] . . . associated with a reduced likelihood of unwed fatherhood and an increased likelihood of marriage.”

As the percentage of American births occurring out of wedlock continues to surge upward, this new study portends even worse to come. For infant boys born out of wedlock are all too likely to experience adolescence in homes lacking a biological father, making them especially prone to follow their absent fathers’ dubious example by siring an out-of-wedlock child. It is hard to imagine a more destructive family tradition.

(Marcia J. Carlson et al., “Examining the Antecedents of U.S. Nonmarital Fatherhood,” Demography 50.4 [2013]: 1421-47, emphasis added.)