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From the 1960s onwards, there has been a substantial increase
in the number of out-of-wedlock births in the US. This is due to a combination
of variables, both the rise of reproductive rights and employment rights for
women, along with changes in attitudes towards what is considered “the norm” in
terms of marriage and childbearing. The literature already written on this
subject seems to agree with this, with some factors being more significant than

One theory explaining this increase is the drop in shotgun
marriages. Up until the early 1970s, the custom of shotgun marriages (enforced
marriages that take place due to the fact that the woman is pregnant) was
prevalent in the US. Since then, it is believed that “The decline in shotgun
marriage accounts for a significant fraction of the increase in out-of-wedlock
first births” (Akerlof et al, 1996, p.277). As well as this, Akerlof et al
(1996)  state that technology shocks such
as the increased use of contraceptives, in addition to the legalisation of
abortion in 1973 following the well-known Roe vs Wade case, have contributed to
the decline. The landmark Roe vs Wade case, won by Norma McCorvey, argued that
it was a woman’s decision whether to terminate her pregnancy and resulted in
the United States Supreme Court making the decision to legalise abortion
nationwide.  This theory of increased
knowledge of abortion or contraceptive services leans away from the notion that
welfare incentives and job shortages in the labour market will affect the
number of out-of-wedlock births, which is another widely accepted theory. Research
on the frequency of out-of-wedlock births has been divided into rates for
different races, in this case black people vs white people. Prior to Akerlof et
al (1996), research showed that in 1965 the out-of-wedlock birth rate for black
people was 24%. Over the next 25 years it had increased to 64% and the white out-of-wedlock
birth rate increased from 3.1% to 18%. It is safe to presume that there is a
link between the decline in shotgun marriages and the increase in the reproductive
choices of women, as “the shotgun marriage ratio began its decline at almost
the same time as the advent of female contraception for unmarried women and the
legalisation of abortion.” (Akerlof et al, 1996, p.279). It follows logic that increased
reproductive rights would lead to less unplanned pregnancies, as less women who
don’t want children at the time will fall pregnant, and through Akerlof et al’s
(1996) research we can see that there is also a link between them and the
number of out-of-wedlock births. Before constructing a model, they presented 3
tables, ranging from 1965 to 1989, comparing vital statistics (e.g. births,
fertility rates), experience of unmarried women (e.g. sexual participation, use
of the pill) and a third table running a regression on his data. Their research
did indeed show that out-of-wedlock births increased from 400,000 to 1.2
million from 1970 to 1990 and he used this data to create a model in the form
of a decision tree, showing the payoffs for both men and women depending on
whether there was a promise of marriage or not.

Whilst this research supported Akerlof et al’s (1996) initial
hypothesis of technology shocks being the major cause, there are others who
have argued that prohibiting abortion does not increase teen or out-of-wedlock
birth rates. Further data shows that “Small declines in access were related to
small declines among in-wedlock births; out-of-wedlock births were relatively
unaffected.” (Kane and Staiger, 1996, p.467). Women in the US had faced large
boundaries when trying to access abortion, which included reduced Medicaid
funding for it and even increased distances from abortion clinics. One would
expect that this would lead to an increase in teen, out-of-wedlock births but
Kane and Staiger’s (1996) research revealed that teen birth rates had in fact
decreased overall and that the change was mainly among in-wedlock births. One
explanation of this can be seen through a model which states that “pregnancy is
an endogenous decision.” (Kane and Staiger, 1996, p.468). This means that women
are more likely to find having a child more attractive after they become
pregnant themselves, not due to other external factors. Kane and Staiger (1996)
used census data of out-of-wedlock and in-wedlock births per woman, distance
from abortion clinics and levels of Medicaid funding over 14 years to construct
this model. The decision to have an abortion comes after the woman has already
become pregnant and therefore can decide whether or not parenthood is
attractive to them, which is new information they receive. Therefore, “abortion
works as an insurance policy to limit the downside risk when that information
is negative.” (Kane and Staiger, 1996, p.468) which means that improved access
to abortion may result in higher birth rates due to the fact that there is less
risk and consequently women may be more complacent with contraception or could
be less likely to practice abstinence. Once they gain this new information,
they may feel differently about parenthood and decide to have the baby,
resulting in more births. The model created was based on the probability of
whether the woman thinks a birth will be in-wedlock or not and will depend on
how pessimistic the woman is and her cost of abortion. To ensure that the
correlations found in their data were correct, birth rates from before there
were discrete changes in access are used and results were compared across
different sample groups.

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As mentioned before, another major theory as to why
out-of-wedlock births may increase over time is due to increased welfare
incentives, which is contrary to what is claimed by Akerlof et al (1996), who
believed they are not a factor. A woman in the US may be more likely to have
children out-of-wedlock as increased support from welfare reduces the need of
another partner and can increase the woman’s confidence in raising the child.
“In 1990 nearly 700,000 teenage girls…became pregnant out-of-wedlock, and half
of them carried the pregnancy to term. Soon after giving birth, most of these
girls applied for and were awarded AFDC benefits.” (An et al, 1993, p.195),
showing that there is a strong case for this hypothesis. As well as increased welfare
receipt, a woman’s background and characteristics can also affect whether she
chooses to receive benefits, in particular whether or not her mother was on
welfare prior to her and what her current economic situation is. Having a
mother on welfare can make it more acceptable for following generations as it
is seen as the norm and therefore growing up in a family that is not in work
“may cause young women to relatively undervalue opportunities in the labour
market that may be an alternative to childbearing.” (An et al, 1993, p.196). We
can also assume that levels of education and welfare receipt are closely
linked, and so mothers who have received more education are less likely to be
on welfare and therefore are less likely to have daughters who give birth
out-of-wedlock. In order to create a model and test this theory, An et al
(1993) used 20 years of data on women aged between 19 and 25 in the late 1980s
and set out to establish a relationship between out-of-wedlock births and
applications for welfare. A “Sequential decision model” (An et al, 1993, p.198)
was constructed based on the probability that an unmarried teenager decides to
give birth and consequently receive benefits. What was found was that the
teenager’s mothers who were more educated and were not on welfare were more
likely to have daughters who did not give birth out-of-wedlock.

Following on from the idea that parents’ backgrounds can
explain changes in births, parents’ attitudes and values that put emphasis on
responsibility can have a large effect on pregnancy rates. Studies show that
“when adolescents and their parents hold values that stress responsibility, the
adolescent’s chances of experiencing an out-of-wedlock childbirth are
significantly reduced.” (Hanson et al, 1987, p.241), moreover the educational
expectations put upon their children in terms of schooling, as well as
religious education, further reduces this rate. In particular, religious views
can reduce out-of-wedlock births as many religions are against premarital
sexual activity. Counterintuitively, greater knowledge of contraceptives and
sex education doesn’t appear to reduce this number. Akerlof et al (1996) and
Kane and Staiger (1996) would argue that increased knowledge and awareness of
these services would have the opposite effect but many women still do not have
the correct knowledge and so sex education can often be ineffective. Hanson et
al (1987) believe that for education to be effective, it must be paired with a
responsible attitude also. They created a model which takes into account the
different types of attitudes and values that were mentioned earlier with data
from the base year 1980 that was achieved in the form of a survey of 10,000
women who had never been married and weren’t pregnant. Follow-up surveys were
conducted in 1982 and 1984 to ensure that the variables only affected
childbearing prior to the pregnancy. The results showed that “females who rank
in the top quartile on these values are at least 23% less likely to experience
an out-of-wedlock childbirth than those who rank in the bottom quartile.” And
“having well-disciplined behaviour reduces the chances of experiencing an out-of-wedlock
birth by 24% for black adolescents and 34% for white adolescents.” (Hanson et
al, 1987, p.248), which agrees with their initial hypothesis.

Since the 1960s, there has been a shift away from marriage in
general (not just an increase in teen pregnancy) causing increased
out-of-wedlock births. “In part because of the emergence of norms that sanction
sexual intimacy and childbearing outside of marriage, the once strong
connection between marriage and fertility has weakened considerably.” (Gibson-Davis,
2011, p.264), showing that both women and men are leaning away from marriage
and towards more appropriate alternatives for themselves. These include
cohabitation, which is no longer seen as just a prelude to marriage, but a
substitute, as well as an increase in lifelong non-marriage (Lee and Payne,
2010). In 1960, 3% of mothers with a child who was at least 36 months old got
married, compared to 13% in 1990 (Ellwood and Jencks, 2004), revealing a trend
over time not only in out-of-wedlock births, but in the length of time women
are waiting to marry and that age at which they do. The median ages at which
men and women in the US are marrying have increased by 21 and 25 percent
respectively from 1970 to 2009, which can in part be attributed to the
previously mentioned alternative lifestyle choices, for example cohabitation,
as cohabitating couples who eventually marry will do so much later (Lee and
Payne, 2010).

Marriage in the US is declining, with 76.5 marriages out of
1000 unmarried women in 1970 reducing to 34.8 marriages in 2008, and the reasons
for this can be split into two types: cultural and demographic/economic as
shown by Lee and Payne (2010). The cultural theory refers to changes in
American culture since the 1960s, in particular the gradual devaluing of
marriage. Americans are now more likely to prioritise their own individual
needs, with large numbers believing that marriage lacks purpose and doesn’t
further fulfil their lives. This may seem counterintuitive as marriage is often
seen as a decision that leaves both the man and the woman happier and
financially better-off. Willis and Haaga (1996) pointed out that there are
“advantages of pooling incomes and labour power to ensure acceptable levels of
investment in children.” which would mean that having children in-wedlock
should be favourable and increase financial security, however more and more
Americans are failing to see these benefits as more significant than not
marrying. Another possible reason for this shift in culture is the rise of
“secular individualism” Popenoe (2007). Increasing numbers of people are
leaning away from religion, which would account for a large increase in
out-of-wedlock births due to many religions condemning premarital sexual
relations and promoting celibacy. Furthermore, throughout history marriage and
religion have been intrinsically linked due to unions often being based on
religious belief. Lee and Payne (2010) show that on one hand the current
cultural climate “de-emphasises the importance of marriage, cultivates approval
of alternatives to marriage, and diminishes the value of commitment to others.”
However, a further theory for the decline in marriage rates hypothesises that
lower income people may value marriage more than those better-off, and
therefore choose to marry much later or not at all. It is suggested that poorer
people will wait to marry until they possess financial stability, in order to
ensure a successful marriage in which both parties have secure jobs and money
for a home or the wedding itself (Lee and Payne, 2010). This will result in
more couples choosing cohabitation over marriage and having children

Whilst cultural changes are a major factor in explaining the
changes in marriage rates, demographic/economic factors also play a large part,
specifically the roles of women in society, with the rise of feminism and the
understanding that women’s roles in the labour force are crucial to economic
growth. Becker (1981) believed that within a marriage, traditionally the man
would specialise in the labour market whereas the woman would specialise in
domestic labour, however over time women’s roles have become more prominent in
the labour market. As women become more self-sufficient, there is less need for
them to rely on a partner for financial stability, and so many are unlikely to
see marriage as a necessity. On the other hand, in an ever-growing economy
women’s roles become not only more important to increase growth, but also more
attractive to potential partners and so could in fact increase the probability
that a woman will marry. In any case, we know that women are at least marrying
later, which will allow them to achieve financial stability and also give them
time to gain more qualifications, both of which make them a more attractive
partner (Lee and Payne, 2010).

Whilst women are now a more significant group in the
workforce, they are still at a disadvantage when it comes to marriage and
childbearing. Willis (1999, p.S33) theorises that “fathers can shift the costs
of child rearing to single mothers.” which is explained by a model involving
the decisions and payoffs of the man and the woman. In cases of out-of-wedlock
births, it is often up to the mother to do most of the childrearing and fathers
are expected to pay child support. A father can offer to pay child support to a
mother with low income in order to improve the quality of life of the child,
however, if the mother has a higher income, the father may choose to contribute
much less, or nothing at all. This means that it could be more desirable for
low income men to father children with multiple higher-earning women than to
have a child in-wedlock and face higher costs and more responsibility (Willis,
1999). Women bear the responsibility of using contraception or potentially
needing to have an abortion due to an unwanted pregnancy, as well as taking
care of the child should she get pregnant, with no guarantee of marriage from
her partner. With improvements in technology and access to these services,
women may no longer need this promise of marriage, however some women are still
left at a disadvantage. Akerlof et al (1996) created 2 models in which to
illustrate this: the first model showed that decreased abortion costs/increased
access to contraception means there is no longer incentive for women to obtain
a guarantee of marriage from sexual partners. These women have an advantage
over women who are not likely to get abortions, for religious reasons or
otherwise, who may want promises of marriage but they can’t be assured it will
happen. This, along with the fact that their male partners can engage in sexual
activity without having to take on parental responsibility leads to women in
general being at a disadvantage and the “feminisation of poverty” (Akerlof et
al, 1996, p.277).

As we can see, there are various different theories for the
increase in out-of-wedlock births. Some research shows that technological
advances, as well as increased knowledge of these new services account for the
increase, other research shows that it is in fact the structure of marriage
itself, along with cultural changes within the US that explains this change.
Much of the data is conflicting, with different authors attributing opposite
effects to the same variable. It is clear that no one factor alone explains
these variations and that a combination of factors is at work.


This dissertation aims to explain the changes in
out-of-wedlock childbirths from the 1960s to today, with a focus on the United
States. There is currently a large amount of literature already analysing this
topic, specifically for the US, which will aid me in my research, but also
create a debate on this issue with many conflicting hypotheses. I would like to
accumulate data relating to both out-of-wedlock births and changes in
technology (improved access to reproductive/sexual health services), as well as
the changing attitudes of women towards childbearing and marriage. The National
Survey of Family Growth has collected data from 1973 to 2015 from exclusively
women, regarding their marriage, sexual activity and contraception, which is
very specific to the research I am conducting, as it is based on individuals
preferences, rather than just quantitative data on incomes, jobs…etc. This data
is not often used and I have not seen it in the articles that I have
read, which will hopefully allow me to have a fresh insight on this topic.

My dissertation will use this data from the last 40
years and I will attempt to isolate each variable to find the main causes of
the increase. Following in the footsteps of Akerlof et al (1996) and Lee and
Payne (2010), I am keen to look into the changes in American society since the
1960s, and why at certain times (such as the 1960s and 1970s) there were large
changes. In addition to this, I aim to deconstruct the idea of marriage as a
concept in order to understand why so many are choosing alternative lifestyles.

Categories: Workforce


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