Scarcity of middle-skill jobs spurs couples to have their first child out of wedlock.

In areas with more middle-skill jobs, young adults are more likely to choose marriage before having their first child. And in areas with fewer of these jobs, they’re more likely to have their first child out of wedlock.

We study how equality and inequality impact the daily lives of families, particularly within the context of first births. We’ve found that income inequality in the areas where families live is correlated with whether they have children outside the framework of marriage. Income inequality is directly related to the availability of “middle-skill” jobs, those that are accessible to someone with a high school education and pay above-poverty wages. Our research suggests that the availability of these types of jobs affects the decisions that young adults make about starting families.

Decent jobs make people more prone to marry

We looked at a national sample of 9,000 young adults whose information is publicly available from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 Cohort. They were first interviewed in 1997 when they were 12 to 16 years old and have been interviewed every year since. We used data through 2011, when they were 26 to 30 years old.

“In general, if you have children, you should strive to be in a stable partnership.”

The probability that young adults (ages 18 to 30) will have a child outside marriage is highest in their early to mid-twenties. We wanted to know whether members of the study cohort got married before having their first child.

We added US census data on household income inequality in the area where each person lived, taking into account variation between highest and lowest household incomes. Using statistical models, we tried to tease out causal effects of income equality on marital status before a first child’s birth.

We also factored in another piece of information gleaned from census data—the prevalence of middle-skill jobs (for example, sales clerk, security guard, machine operator, or bus driver). We wondered if the availability of decent jobs for people without a university education affects whether people marry before starting families. We found that young adults who live in areas with better job opportunities are more likely to marry before having their first child. Much of the apparent effect of household income inequality on first births seems to be accounted for by the prevalence of decent jobs for high school graduates. Thus economic considerations influence people’s decisions to have a child outside of marriage.

High levels of income inequality are associated with a lesser likelihood of marrying before first births. It appears that a hole in the middle of the job market — that is, a lack of middle-skill jobs — is what spurs couples to have children out of wedlock.

Why marriage matters

Why do we care if couples are married or not? In the US, marriage breeds stable partnerships, which are better for children.

In general, if you have children, you should strive to be in a stable partnership. In the US, people in stable partnerships tend to be married. Marriage is more highly valued in the US than elsewhere as a symbol of a successful personal life. The battle over same-sex marriage has been fiercer in the US than in other countries because marriage is considered desirable here and everyone wants a piece of it.

“Even if the majority of first children among unmarried people are unplanned, the decision to marry is affected by the job market.”

In Europe, where it’s common to have stable, long-term cohabiting partnerships, we might not care whether couples are married when they have their first child. In the US, we haven’t seen a similar trend toward long-term cohabiting relationships. Most cohabiting couples in the US live together for no more than three years, after which about half break up and half get married. If the US someday becomes more like Europe, we might become less concerned about marriage.

In the US, marriage creates stability

US parents who cohabit rather than marry tend to have a series of partners, which creates unstable family lives that can harm children’s wellbeing. The coming and going of parents and partners can be difficult. A number of studies suggest that instability has negative consequences for children’s behavioral development. Research ties absent fathers to higher levels of aggression. Children born to married parents appear to be less aggressive both in and out of school.

Most births outside marriage are unplanned

One potential criticism of our approach is that in surveys, most people who have had a child outside marriage say their pregnancy was unintended.

But we contend that even if a pregnancy was unplanned, the choice to marry may well be a rational decision. Even if the majority of first children among unmarried people are unplanned, the decision to marry is affected by the job market.

What’s unique about this research

Much of the research on the consequences of income inequality hasn’t looked at individual data; instead, it has looked at counties or states. We’re taking lofty macro-level research on income inequality down to the individual level of young adults. We’re suggesting that income equality, rather than affecting marriage decisiosns directly, is an indicator of the health of the middle of the job market.

Header photo: Scott Elder. Creative Commons.

Policy Implications

We can offer wage supplements that make low-income jobs more appealing; for example, extending the earned income tax credit to childless individuals could improve the economic situation of adults in low-wage jobs by giving money to them rather than taking money from them at tax time. Currently, this tax credit is available only to people with kids. But extending it to childless young adults could make people more likely to marry should a pregnancy occur because their wages would be high enough to make a long-term partnership appealing.

Practice Implications

If we’re concerned about more children being born out of wedlock, we can take steps to shore up the middle of the labor market. Investment in vocational and community college training, which many people support regardless, may have positive consequences for family stability and well-being of children in future generations.


 Cherlin AJ, Ribar D &Yasutake S (2016), Nonmarital first births, marriage, and income inequality, American Sociological Review 81.4