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.
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We use the term “father” throughout this article to indicate biological fatherhood. The social role of fathers in family life is also an important topic, but we do not address it here.
Nonmarital childbearing is closely related to unintended childbearing (Musick 2002); we focus on nonmarital births because we are substantively interested in the marital context of childbearing and because data on intendedness in the NSFG and NLSY are not available for all men.
The NSFG suggests weighting regressions but says it is acceptable to estimate unweighted regressions. The NLSY recommends not weighting regressions. To be consistent, we estimate unweighted regressions for both.
The NLSY excluded institutionalized individuals at the time of sampling but follows respondents if they become incarcerated or enter the military.
Similar attitudinal measures are available in the NSFG but only at the time of interview. We do not use such measures because they could be endogenous to having become a father.
Wu and Martin (2013) noted the importance of separately considering factors that affect age of sexual onset and that affect the risk of a premarital birth given onset—though they found that variability in the former has a much smaller influence on premarital birth probabilities than differences in the latter. Because our focus here is to provide a descriptive portrait of the factors related to nonmarital fatherhood (rather than to evaluate the mechanisms), we include all men and use control variables to represent the timing of sexual initiation.
The NLSY dropped the age of sexual initiation question after 1985, but very few of the men had not had sex by that time.
In additional analyses (not shown), we estimated models using data only through 1994—hence, not imputing the 1994–2006 odd-numbered years. The results were nearly identical to our main results through 2006, so we present results for the full 1979–2006 period in order to capture a greater proportion of births to this cohort.
We present results using the imputed data in our tables, but we also estimated models using complete cases only, and the results were nearly identical.
We do not censor at marriage because we are interested in the outcome of first nonmarital birth. Although it is not common, men could be married and divorced and then have a nonmarital birth.
We also estimated models using respondents’ actual earnings (lagged by one year) instead of predicted earnings (results not shown); none of the actual earnings variables were significantly related to nonmarital births (although the direction was also negative), but high actual earnings were similarly significantly and positively related to marital births.
Our results for the age 14–16 NLSY subsample (not shown) are mostly similar to the total NLSY sample, suggesting that left-censoring is not a major source of bias in our analyses; some coefficients in the subsample do not reach statistical significance, although the magnitudes are similar. The most notable substantive difference is that ever being incarcerated is associated with a diminished chance of a marital birth only in the subsample.
We include only births to age 40, given that few births occur after that age, and the estimates thereafter become unreliable because of small cell sizes.
Similar patterns are observed when the respondent’s father’s education is used instead of respondent’s education.
We thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting these useful points.
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The authors appreciate funding for this research provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development through a grant to the first author (R01HD57894) and through core funding to the Center for Demography and Ecology (R24HD047873), as well as additional funding by the Research Committee of the Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. An earlier version was presented at the annual meetings of the Population Association of America. We thank David Ribar, Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, for excellent methodological advice and guidance; and we thank Frank Furstenberg, Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, for thoughtful conceptual input. We appreciate very helpful comments and suggestions from the Editor (Stewart Tolnay), several anonymous reviewers, and W. Bradford Wilcox as a conference discussant.
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Carlson, M.J., VanOrman, A.G. & Pilkauskas, N.V. Examining the Antecedents of U.S. Nonmarital Fatherhood. Demography 50, 1421–1447 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-013-0201-9
- Nonmarital childbearing
- Men’s fertility
- Nonmarital fatherhood
- First births