, Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 1421-1447

First online:

Examining the Antecedents of U.S. Nonmarital Fatherhood

  • Marcia J. CarlsonAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology, Center for Demography and Ecology, and Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin–Madison Email author 
  • , Alicia G. VanOrmanAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology and Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • , Natasha V. PilkauskasAffiliated withSchool of Social Work and Columbia Population Research Center, Columbia University

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Despite the dramatic rise in U.S. nonmarital childbearing in recent decades, limited attention has been paid to factors affecting nonmarital fatherhood (beyond studies of young fathers). In this article, we use data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 cohort to examine the antecedents of nonmarital fatherhood, as compared to marital fatherhood. Overall, we find the strongest support across both data sets for education and race/ethnicity as key predictors of having a nonmarital first birth, consistent with prior literature about women’s nonmarital childbearing and about men’s early/teenage fatherhood. Education is inversely related to the risk of nonmarital fatherhood, and minority (especially black) men are much more likely to have a child outside of marriage than white men. We find little evidence that employment predicts nonmarital fertility, although it does strongly (and positively) predict marital fertility. High predicted earnings are also associated with a greater likelihood of marital childbearing but with a lower likelihood of nonmarital childbearing. Given the socioeconomic disadvantage associated with nonmarital fatherhood, this research suggests that nonmarital fatherhood may be an important aspect of growing U.S. inequality and stratification both within and across generations.


Nonmarital childbearing Men’s fertility Nonmarital fatherhood First births