Even among less-educated couples who are living together, “the guys don't think they're good marriage material either,” Cherlin said. “Men think they need to be able to provide. They’ll say the love is there, the trust is there, everything is there except the money.”
It's harder to plan when you're poor. People without college degrees tend to be poorer, and poverty has been shown to tax the brain’s capacity for rational decision-making.
To a wealthy person, of course it doesn’t make sense for a high-school dropout to have a kid by herself. But as Maria Konnikova wrote in the New York Times this weekend, poverty actually robs you twice: First by making resources scarce, and second by making it harder for the poor to plan long-term. “The demands of the moment override the demands of the future, making that future harder to reach,” she writes.
Cherlin said these couples don’t not use birth control, but they don’t use it effectively either. The Affordable Care Act made birth control free, and that might make a difference, but only if people use their birth control correctly.
Having a baby can be a marker of adulthood. Finally, let’s say you don’t finish high school. Many of the higher-paying jobs you might have been eligible for 50 years ago have been outsourced or computerized, and the remaining jobs are low-paying and dull.
Meanwhile, babies are great; they’re like a little mini-job that you get to love. Plus, being a mother is being someone.
“Many young women think they will be able to care for the kid—they have a mother who can help, a sister they can rely on,” Cherlin said. Particularly among the very poorest Americans, “this is a way a woman or man can be a successful adult when all other paths are blocked.”
The plurality of the moms in the study who didn’t finish high school before having a kid (36 percent) are actually not single: They’re living with a boyfriend. And that would actually be okay, if those relationships were stable. The trouble is, they’re not.
Unlike in Western Europe, where couples cohabit for years and sometimes decades, often with kids, less-educated Americans tend to rotate in and out of cohabiting relationships as the years wear on. They have children with multiple different partners, creating complex webs of child obligations, step-parents, and half-siblings.
“One might say ‘who cares?’ [about the cohabitation],” Cherlin said. “In fact, the French don't seem to care. Scandinavian people do the same thing. But our cohabiting relationships aren't like theirs.”
“I'm not saying everyone has to be married, but it's best for children if their parents are in stable relationships. It doesn't have to be marriage, it doesn't have to be two different genders. The problem is the instability of the kids' lives as they live through all these comings and goings.”