published Sunday, June 29th, 2014

Baumgardner: Sequence of marriage, then children is key

By Julie Baumgardner

Over the past decade there has been a shift in the sequence of marriage and having babies. Remember the rhyme, "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage"? Not so anymore. New research indicates 57 percent of mothers between the age of 26 and 31 are unmarried when their child is born.

While you may think this is the "new normal," it isn't the norm for everybody. Findings from a recently released study by Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins University indicates a college education has become more than a pathway to higher-paying jobs; it is now a definitive factor in childbearing. Of mothers without a high school diploma, 63 percent of births occur outside of marriage. Among college-educated young women, 71 percent of births occur within marriage.

Is this trend harmful to children?

Looking at the research, there is no question this set of circumstances creates two distinct paths for children where marriage and education are the deciding factors. Children growing up in a home with their two married parents are more likely to experience a stable environment with access to array of resources, including educational opportunities. Children who grow up in a nonmarried home are more likely to grow up with less stability and less opportunity for the same type of resources.

Children who grow up in single-parent homes are five times more likely to experience poverty; yet children who grow up in low-income homes but have married parents are at far less risk of living in poverty.

In an interview with the website The Vox, Cherlin shared his concern about stable family lives for children. Children need stability. The current pattern with cohabiting unions is that they break up at higher rates than marriages. About half of all cohabiting people will either marry or break up within two years. For those who break up, they will likely create more cohabiting unions, which creates more instability.

If you believe that people with a high school diploma or less are less likely to believe in or want marriage, you are mistaken. Kathryn Edin, while researching 150 low-income women for her book, "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage," found clear evidence that these women want marriage, but they have to wait to find the right person to marry. However, getting pregnant is something they can do right away.

As far as teens are concerned, a recently released report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancies indicates most teens (74 percent) see marriage and children in their future in that order.

Clearly, there is a disconnect when it comes to understanding the significance of marriage and its impact on the well-being of children. While there has been ongoing emphasis on the importance of education attainment for young people, there has been very little said about sequencing for success and the significance of marriage. The difference in outcomes for children when people get educated, work full-time, marry and then start families is profound. The chances of living in poverty drop from 12 percent to 2 percent, and the chances of joining the middle class move from 56 percent to 74 percent.

Imagine how future generations would be impacted if more people realized the benefits of following this "success sequence."

Julie Baumgardner is the president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at julieb@firstthings.org.

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