Across the U.S., the average age at first birth has held steadily over the last several decades. At the same time, the age at first marriage has gone up. This trend in family formation patterns has lead to an increase in family instability which has significantly decreased child well-being. There are only two permanent solutions to this form of family instability. As a society we can encourage marriage at younger ages or we can encourage delayed childbirth and parenting (Sawhill 2002).
Multiple factors influence whether a person decides to become a single parent at an early age or chooses to delay parenting until after they are stably married and have completed their education (McLanahan 1994, Sum et al. forthcoming, Marini 1984, Western 2004, Edin and Reed 2005).
I. Challenges Facing Never Married Parent Families
Never-married and separated parents often have educations that stopped with high school, and struggle to support their families on low incomes. This profile accounts for roughly 32% of families with children in Memphis and Shelby County. These families are most often headed by mothers. These children and families seldom often have little interaction with absent fathers and are likely to experience high levels of family, residential, and school transience and instability.
· Nearly half of all African American families raising children (45% of all black families with children and 50% of African American children) in Shelby County today have never-married or separated parents.
· Families raised by never-married and separated parents in Shelby County have an average income of $21,602 (or 122% of the poverty line for a family of three). Among both Black and White families raising children, parents who are separated have less income than never married families raising children.
Children born to single-parents are 5 times more likely to live in poverty, and consequently are less likely to have access to nutritious diets, regular health care, high quality center-based preschool, are less likely to be read to frequently, and – as a result – are likely to reach school well behind their peers raised in middle-class, married-couple families.
II. What Factors contribute to the Rise in Never Married Parenting?
High School Drop-Out Rates
The likelihood that a family will be raised by a never-married mother is significantly related to the mother’s overall level of education. Economist Andrew Sum notes that 70% of mothers without a high school diploma will never be married vs. 10 to 15% of mothers who have master’s degrees (Sum et al., forthcoming).
Decline in Real Wages
“Between 1980 and 1990, women with a high school degree experienced a 2 percent decline in earnings, while men with similar education experienced a 13 percent decline. This absolute loss in earnings particularly discouraged marriage by some low-skilled men who were no longer able to fulfill their breadwinner role” (McLanahan 1994).
Daniel Lichter of Ohio State University has found that women who have given birth out of wedlock are 40% less likely than women of comparable race, economic background and education to eventually marry. The rate increases to 51% when we exclude women who subsequently married the father of their first child (Sawhill 2002).
Rising Incarceration Rates
Men who are incarcerated are much less likely to get married than their counterparts. Rising rates of incarceration among African American men contributes to lopsided gender ratios among African Americans in urban areas (Western, 2004: 12).
III. Helping Create More Stable Families in Our Community
A. More Education for Women
Child birth is the single life event that most consistently corresponds with the ending of a woman’s education. (Marini 1984)
The vast majority (~75%) of unmarried mothers in our county stopped their formal education with high school graduation. In contrast, married mothers in Shelby County consistently have completed some college and a sizeable proportion (43%) have a bachelor’s degree or better. In Shelby County the average age at first birth for single mothers is 21; the average age at first birth for married mothers is 28 (Shelby County BCS data, 2006)
When a woman has an education that she is invested in pursuing, she has a tangible reason to delay childbearing, which in turn increases her income, job stability and the likelihood that she’ll marry before she begins her family.
B. Raising Men’s Incomes
The general pattern that emerges from both local and state level data on men’s levels of participation in marriage and parenthood is that having more education does not increase a man’s propensity to be a married parent.
Although more education does not mean a man is less likely to become a single father, earning a higher income does correspond to a reduced rate of single fatherhood. This finding suggests men are more likely to delay parenting until after marriage when they believe they will have the capacity to meaningfully contribute to the financial well being of their families.
Average yearly personal income for a married African American father in Tennessee is $40,592. Average yearly personal income for a married white father is $45,447.
In contrast, the average yearly personal income of a never married African American father is $12,329; and the average yearly personal income of a never married white father is $14,848.