VoxEU Column Education Poverty and Income Inequality

Get together for the kids

The US has experienced dramatic changes in patterns of marriage, cohabitation, and childbearing since 1950. Non-marital births have increased from 4% of all births in 1950 to 41% in 2010, and a majority (52%) of non-marital births now occur within cohabiting unions (Manlove et al. 2010). Much of this change can be accounted for by a reduction in 'shotgun' marriages (Akerlof, Yellen, Katz, 1996).

Since there are wide variations in family structure by race and ethnicity and by education and income, these changes have important implications for inequality and intergenerational mobility (McLanahan 2004). Non-marital births now account for 72% of non-Hispanic black births, 53% of Hispanics births, and 29% of non-Hispanic white births. Within each of these race-ethnicity categories, there is a steep education gradient: the rates of non-marital childbearing among college graduates are substantially lower than for other education groups. The pronounced retreat from marriage and marital childbearing is concentrated among the less educated while marriage behavior has been relatively stable for those with college degrees.

We argue that different patterns of childrearing are the key to understanding class differences in marriage and parenthood, rather than being an unintended byproduct of them. Marriage is the commitment mechanism that supports high levels of investment in children and is hence more valuable for parents adopting a high-investment strategy for their children (Lundberg and Pollak, 2013).

The uneven retreat from marriage

Since 1950 the sources of the gains from marriage have changed radically. The standard economic account of the gains to marriage rested on a gendered division of labour: husbands worked in the market and wives worked at home producing household services and commodities. As the educational attainment of women overtook and surpassed that of men and the ratio of men's to women's wage rates fell, the traditional pattern of specialisation weakened. As a result, the primary source of the gains to marriage shifted from specialisation and exchange between spouses to investment in children, which remains an important family function. For some, these changes meant that marriage was no longer worth the costs of limited independence and potential mismatch.

The retreat from marriage has been much more rapid for individuals with lower levels of education, and the decoupling of marriage and childbearing that has occurred among low-education groups has simply not occurred among college graduates. Marriage rates have been relatively stable over recent decades for white men and women with a four-year college degree, but have fallen sharply for those with a high-school education or less (see Figure 1). Cohabitation has become an acceptable living arrangement for all groups, but the prevalence of cohabitation is strongly decreasing in education. For highly educated couples, cohabitation is typically a precursor to marriage and rarely includes childbearing. In contrast, the cohabiting unions of low-education women are more likely to end in dissolution than in marriage, and more often involve children (Lichter and Qian 2008). As the age at first marriage has risen for all groups, the average age at first birth has increased for high-education women, but has remained essentially constant for women with very low levels of education (Bailey, Guldi, and Hershbein forthcoming).

Figure 1. Proportion of white individuals currently married by education level, age 30-44

Source: Census 1950-2000, American Community Survey 2010.

The uneven retreat from marriage has important implications for inequality and intergenerational mobility. Children benefit from stability and consistency in parenting and the greater instability in living arrangements associated with cohabitation and lone parenthood may be an additional source of disadvantage for children of low-education parents. Widening gaps in maternal age at first birth may also contribute to the growing disparities in investments in children of high- and low-educated parents.

Why do college-educated men and women marry before having children?

How do we explain the education gradient in the US retreat from marriage? For less educated couples, cohabitation often substitutes for marriage. Like marriage, cohabitation provides opportunities for division of labour, economies of scale, and access to household public goods. A crucial difference between marriage and cohabitation is the degree of long-term commitment. Marriage serves as a commitment device because exit from marriage is more difficult and more expensive than exit from cohabitation. Because exit is costly, marriage enables prospective parents to commit to the joint project of making intense investments in their children. To the extent that parents in different education and income groups wish to implement different child investment strategies, we should expect to see differences in marriage patterns. Table 1 shows that, within race-ethnic groups, the rate of non-marital childbearing declines sharply with mothers’ educational attainment.

Table 1. Nonmarital births as a proportion of all births by mother’s education, 2010

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Health Statistics. VitalStats http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/vitalstats.htm

There is considerable direct evidence of differences in child investment strategies across education/ income groups. Parents with more education and income spend substantially more time with their children and also spend more money on them (Guryan, Hurst, and Kearney 2008). These differences in investments of time and money mirror socioeconomic differences in parenting practices and attitudes that have been documented by psychologists and sociologists. Middle and upper-class parents are typically very involved in their children’s activities, and engage in what sociologist Annette Lareau characterises as “concerted cultivation” of their children. Working class and poor parents, in contrast, allow for the 'natural growth' of their children (Lareau 2003). Their restricted resources lead poor parents to value "survival over achievement" (Edin and Kefalas 2005).

Parents may rationally choose different investment strategies because their perceived opportunities or their preferences concerning child outcomes or activities with children differ. In addition to wanting happy and economically successful children, most parents also want their children to grow up sharing their social and cultural values. These objectives are more likely to be consistent and mutually reinforcing for middle-class, rather than poor, parents. Even if parents at different education and income levels have identical goals for their children and identical process preferences, differences in parental resources and the productivity of parental time can produce a parenting strategy divide across groups. Recent dynamic models of human capital production feature complementarity between a child's stock of human capital and the productivity of subsequent investments, suggesting that parental investments will be more productive for children who have early cognitive and health advantages (Cunha and Heckman 2007). Rising returns to skill in the labour market and growing income inequality may also have accentuated this class divide in child investments through diverging parental resources.


As the gains to household specialisation have decreased and cohabitation has become a socially acceptable mechanism for obtaining the benefits of a joint household, the practical significance of marriage has shifted away from a commitment device that facilitates a long-term gendered division of labour towards one that supports high levels of parental investment in children. Hence, the benefits of marriage are substantially greater for parents who want to adopt a high investment strategy than for those who do not. Well-educated, high-income parents tend to make more intensive investments in their children. We argue that these class differences in patterns of childrearing are the key to understanding observed differences in marriage and parenthood.


Akerlof, George A, Janet L Yellen, and Michael L Katz (1996), "An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the U.S.," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 111(2): 277-317.

Bailey, Martha J, Melanie Guldi and Brad J Hershbein (forthcoming), “Is There a Case for a ‘Second Demographic Transition’? Three Distinctive Features of the Post-1960 U.S. Fertility Decline,” in Leah P Boustan, Carola Frydman, and Robert A Margo, eds. Human Capital and History: The American Record, National Bureau of Economic Research-University of Chicago Press.

Cunha, Flavio, and James Heckman (2007), “The Technology of Skill Formation,” The American Economic Review 97(2): 31-47.

Edin, Kathryn, and Maria Kefalas (2005), Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Guryan, Jon, Erik Hurst, and Melissa Kearney (2008), "Parental Education and Time with Children", Journal of Economic Perspectives, 22(3): 23-46.

Lareau, Annette (2003), Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lichter, Daniel T, and Zhenchao Qian (2008), “Serial Cohabitation and the Marital Life Course,” Journal of Marriage and Family 70: 861-878.

Lundberg, Shelly and Robert A Pollak. 2013, "Cohabitation and the Uneven Retreat from Marriage in the U.S., 1950-2010," NBER Working Paper 19413.

Manlove, Jennifer, Suzanne Ryan, Elizabeth Wildsmith and Kerry Franzetta (2010), “The Relationship Context of Nonmarital Childbearing in the US,” Demographic Research 23(22): 615-654.

McLanahan, Sara (2004), "Diverging Destinies: How Children Fare Under the Second Demographic Transition," Demography, 41(4): 607-627.

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