“I wasn’t raised into a million-dollar house,” said James, 20, whose rental home in southern Ohio sat just a few miles away from an actual million-dollar neighborhood. “I was raised [by] a dad who works hard, a mom who worked, and they had factory jobs—they had regular jobs. They [paid] bills, you get Christmas and you get stuff—but you’re never gonna get a $50,0000 car because you graduated high school.”
James was trying to explain to me why he was okay with having a child before getting married. His girlfriend’s pregnancy was unexpected—though he wasn’t using condoms and she wasn’t using birth control—and that’s just life, he said.
“Idealistically, yeah it’d be nice” to wait until marriage to have kids, he said. But, he added, that’s kind of like saying you don’t want any debts, or that you want a $35 an hour job, or that you want to take off of work for four months after having a child. Other people might live in that kind of world, but that’s a “perfect world” that James doesn’t live in.
So what are you supposed to do—just not have kids? “A kid is a big thing,” said James, “but it doesn’t mean that you have to be married.”
When asked what he would have preferred to have in place before having kids, James responded:
I would’ve liked to have the house I was gonna live in for the rest of my life. I would’ve liked to know I’m gonna have the money when it comes time to baby shop…. I’d liked to have been financially ready where I didn’t have any worries about it. But like I said, we’re gonna make the best of it.
“Making the best of it” is what Andrew Cherlin and colleagues found that other high-school-educated young adults appear to be doing. In a new paper published in American Sociological Review, Cherlin and colleagues analyzed a sample of over 7,400 mostly non-college-educated Millennials. Researchers followed the participants from 1997, when they were between ages 12 and 16, to 2011, when they were between ages 26 and 31, and looked at the transitions that individuals made into parenthood and marriage: whether they had a first child as a single or cohabiting parent, or whether they married before having children.
“A kid is a big thing,” said James, a working-class, unmarried father. “But it doesn’t mean that you have to be married.”
They found that “men and women living in areas with greater income inequality were less likely to marry prior to having a first birth.” However, when they looked at the availability of jobs open to high school graduates that pay above poverty-level wages—what the authors called “middle-skilled jobs”—they found that “the greater the availability of men’s and women’s middle-skilled jobs, the greater was the likelihood of marrying prior to having a first birth.” In other words, when decent-paying jobs for high school graduates like James were available, people were more likely to wait until marriage to have children.
Moreover, after accounting for middle-skilled job opportunities in an area, the study found that “inequality was no longer significantly associated with the transition to marriage in most models.” Thus, the authors suggest that “the availability of middle-skilled jobs that pay above poverty-level wages may account for at least part of the seeming effect of income inequality on the marital context of first births.”
Additionally, these factors were connected for men: “The more unequal the household income distribution in an income area, the fewer middle-skilled jobs were available for men, and the less likely a man was to marry prior to a birth.”
Interestingly, in one control model the study constructed, the availability of middle-skilled jobs was not only associated with a greater likelihood of transitioning to marriage prior to having children, but also with a greater likelihood of having a first child in a cohabiting union (for women only), and to having a single-parent birth (for men and women). In other words, it may be that better job opportunities for high-school-educated men and women accelerate childbearing, regardless of whether they’re married or not.
Still, the most consistent findings across all models in the study suggest that the more living-wage jobs that are available for working-class men and women, the greater the likelihood they will marry prior to having a child.
Regrettably, I suspect it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, working-class young people aren’t jumping at the good job opportunities already out there. In places like Greater Cincinnati, where I live, employers (including manufacturers) offering good wages to high-school-educated people are practically begging for workers.
The cultural acceptance of nonmarital childbearing also matters, which Cherlin and his colleagues acknowledge in their paper, and which James mentioned when explaining their decision not to marry right away.
But if employers can figure out how to attract and keep those young people—and to expand the availability of living-wage jobs in general—it could be a great pro-marriage development. Creating a seamless path out of high school to living-wage work might empower more young adults like James, who worked a low-wage job at a furniture store at the time he became a father, to become more future-minded: to see home ownership and savings on the horizon, rather than as distant and lofty goals.
“We’re probably not going to have the same job that we’re at right now for the rest of our lives,” noted James when I asked what’s keeping him from getting married. “We want to settle in a little bit more.”
Living-wage jobs will not have a magic effect on marriage rates among working-class Millennials, but they are an important part of a thriving marriage ecology. If working-class young men and women could “settle in a little bit more,” and gain a sense of confidence about living-wage job opportunities, perhaps it would help them also settle into marriage before having children.