Odds of Single Motherhood Are Increased if a Child Is Valued as a Social Resource

C. Coren, Guttmacher Institute

First published online:

| DOI: https://doi.org/10.1363/3603904b

Although research on nonmarital fertility has typically focused on economic factors, unmarried women may have children for reasons unrelated to economic motivations. Findings of an analysis of national, longitudinal data1 suggest that unmarried women who highly value the social capital gained from childbearing may be more likely than other unmarried women to give birth. The analysis also shows that the odds of having a nonmarital birth are increased if the woman intends to have a child in the near future, but the odds are decreased if she is sure that she does not want to have a child.

The study used data on unmarried, nonsterilized U.S. women participating in the 1987-1988 and 1992-1994 waves of the National Survey of Families and Households. The researchers examined whether selected fertility-related attitudes and intentions at Wave 1 were associated with having a live birth between Waves 1 and 2.

Of the 1,155 women included in the analyses, more than half were white (63%), and the rest were primarily black (28%) or Hispanic (8%). Most women had graduated from high school (86%); more than half (63%) had an annual income of $5,000-25,000. For each woman, the observation period included in the analyses involved the months from baseline until conception, marriage or Wave 2, whichever came first. Of the more than 50,000 person-months observed, 18% involved women who were cohabiting, 37% involved women who were working full-time, 49% involved women who had never given birth and 70% involved women aged 25-39.

In addition to gathering data on background characteristics, the Wave 1 survey asked each woman how important the value of children as a social resource, the economic costs of children and her career are to her when she thinks about potential childbearing. The social resource variable measured the importance of the following considerations in a woman's childbearing decisions: providing herself with something to do, someone to love or someone to care for her in older age; having at least one son and one daughter; providing a current child with a sibling; and providing her parents with grandchildren. The survey also collected data regarding women's attitudes toward nonmarital fertility and childbearing intentions.

Forty percent of women rated the importance of children as a social resource as low, 44% indicated that this consideration was of medium importance and 16% responded that it was highly important. The importance of economic costs was rated as low by 11%, medium by 36% and high by 53%; the importance of career was low for 21%, medium for 32% and high for 47%. Twenty-three percent of women agreed that it was all right to have children outside of marriage, 42% disagreed and 35% were neutral. When asked about their general intention for fertility, 43% felt at least moderately sure that they would have a future birth, 33% felt moderately sure that they would not and 24% were unsure. Fourteen percent intended to have a child in the next four years, whereas 86% did not.

Twenty-one percent of the women gave birth during the observation period. In a logistic regression model adjusted for numerous background characteristics, cost consideration was not associated with nonmarital conception, but the importance of children as a social resource and of career were. Specifically, nonmarital conception was more likely if the woman had attached high rather than medium importance to the consideration of children as a social resource (odds ratio, 1.5); however, conception was less likely if she had attached high rather than medium importance to the consideration of career (0.7).

In a model that added three variables related to fertility intention and attitude toward out-of-wedlock birth, the importance of career was no longer associated with the outcome variable, and the value for importance of children as a social resource merely approached the level of statistical significance. The three additional variables, however, did show significant associations. In particular, the odds of nonmarital conception were 50% higher for women who had planned to have a child within four years than for other women (odds ratio, 1.5). Women's odds were reduced by 40% if they had been sure of their intention not to have a child, rather than unsure of their fertility plans (0.6), or if they had disagreed that out-of-wedlock birth would be all right (0.6).

When all variables were considered in the logistic regression analysis, several background characteristics also were associated with the outcome variable. The odds of nonmarital conception in a given observation month were increased by 70-80% if the woman had at least two children rather than no children, if she was black instead of white, or if she was currently cohabiting (odds ratios, 1.7-1.8). The odds were increased by approximately 30% if the woman was employed full-time (1.3), and they were more than doubled if she was younger than 25 (2.3). A woman's odds of nonmarital conception were decreased, however, if she was aged 35 or older rather than 30-34, or if she had more than a high school education (0.1-0.6).

The researchers concede that their analysis could have benefited from inclusion of other types of data, such as characteristics of single fathers and the male-to-female ratio of eligible potential spouses. Nonetheless, they note that their findings of associations with background characteristics confirm results of previous studies and, more important, their other findings "break new ground by demonstrating that noneconomic fertility motivations play a significant role in nonmarital fertility." They conclude that "we need to move beyond economic factors and gain a fuller appreciation of the social rewards that induce unmarried women to have children."

—C. Coren

1. Schoen R and Tufis P, Precursors of nonmarital fertility in the United States, Journal of Marriage and Family, 2003, 65(4):1030-1040.