Will the Decline in Marriage Mean a Decline in Political Power for Mothers?

Unmarried mothers are now the majority of new moms under 30, and 41 percent of non-college educated moms. Too bad they don't vote so much.

What if the goal of women's equality within the American political system is partly dependent on the persistence of marriage as an institution here? The rise in the percentage of women who have kids outside of marriage in the United States without a concomitant transformation of unmarried mothers into more engaged political participants suggests that, far from experiencing a long-forecast and organic increase in political power in the years ahead, women will actually see it decline.

How's that? Let me walk you though some of the studies pointing in this direction.

Over the weekend, Jason DeParle wrote a provocative piece about growing class divisions in family structure. Though there was some debate over how he described one of the studies cited in the piece, in the main his New York Times piece was provocative not because of anything he wrote, but because the topic is one that is so fraught (with defenders of single moms, in particular, sensitive to any hint of woman-blaming for a social transformation many women feel helpless to fight given the changes in working-class male values and economic prospects). Observed DeParle, describing one partial source of the new inequality:

College-educated Americans ... are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women ... are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns -- as opposed to changes in individual earnings -- may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes. ...

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides, according to an analysis by Child Trends, a Washington research group. Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent. ...

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now ... is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class -- among women ... who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

Heather Boushey and I described the same educational/family structure divide back in 2002, at the front-end of the wave of out-of-wedlock births to white working-class women, and in the context of explaining the so-called baby bust among high-achieving women:

The so-called baby bust thus has far less to do with female accomplishment or age-related infertility than it does with the persistence of traditional values among economic elites. For high-achieving women, it might as well still be the Eisenhower era, which was the last time the nation as a whole had such a low rate of unmarried births. Because of high-achieving women's greater behavioral conservatism, it is marriage -- not degree of professional success -- that is the single largest determinant of whether they will have children.

So why don't these women just get married? The answer is, they do. Remember, high-achieving women are just as likely to be married at 28 to 35 and at 36 to 40 as are all other working women. And once they marry, they are just as likely to have kids, though they tend to do so somewhat later in life. The difference is that the ones who don't marry rarely have kids.

The class division in unmarried motherhood has implications beyond economic inequality, a divide in life experiences for a whole new generation of children, or an increase in the percent of women who never have kids because they don't marry. The new family structures also have potentially profound implications for our political system, and for the power of mothers within it, according to data crunched for a presentation by Lake Research Partners for The Voter Participation Center earlier this year.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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