These patterns seem to hinge on whether men are making more money than women, the authors found. When it was women’s jobs that were affected, such as when predominantly female sectors like the leather-goods industry saw competition from Chinese imports, marriage rates and in-wedlock births increased.
The paper’s findings are worrisome for some places that have seen men’s jobs displaced by trade and automation. A trade shock in which one sector saw major job losses increased the share of children living in poverty by 13 percent. It also increased the share of children living in single-parent-headed or grandparent-headed households.
It’s more evidence that there was something special about manufacturing in America in the middle of the 20th century, because the sector provided good-paying jobs for people without a college education. Those jobs allowed people a comfortable lifestyle, and when they vanish, families changed. “It does appear that places where manufacturing is prevalent, it’s kind of a fulcrum, a cornerstone of a way of life where men have relatively stable, modestly high earnings and women are more likely to be married to them,” Autor said.
Where that lifestyle doesn’t exist anymore, something else has arisen in its place. In past times of economic hardship, birth rates plummeted because women didn’t want to marry and have babies with men who didn’t have jobs. Women also faced a huge amount of stigma if they decided to have children out of wedlock. But now, people are having children despite the economic obstacles. In some cases, as the sociologist Andrew Cherlin lays out in his book, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America, more adults are having children within unstable relationships. “A substantial number go on to have children with a second partner, or even a third, creating complex and unstable family lives that are not good for children,” he writes.
This creates challenges for the people (usually women) who have to raise a child without the economic or social support of a partner. Their struggles are why the authors see such an uptick in children living in poverty in the aftermath of a decline in manufacturing employment.
Yet there are many women who have soldiered on, despite it all. After all, women are more independent than they used to be because they have more job opportunities than they once did. They can make the choice not to marry and still have children, and not face as much stigma as they once did.
This group includes Olivia Alfano, a 29-year-old single mother living in Evansville, Indiana, where she works as a waitress at Red Lobster. The money is pretty good, she told me: She drives a BMW and was able to buy a house last year. Alfano now wants to go into management, which she thinks will give her more security in the long run. When I asked her why she hadn’t married, she told me, “I haven’t run into someone I would consider doing that with.”