IN 1950, ABOUT one in 25 American children was born to an unmarried mother. Today, that rate is about one in three, usually to those least likely to be able to support a child on their own. This has led some to charge that the marriage norm is dead in poor communities.
My colleague and I entered into the lives of 165 low-income single mothers living in eight destitute neighborhoods across Philadelphia and its poorest industrial suburb, Camden. We spent five years chatting over kitchen tables and on front stoops, giving these mothers the opportunity to speak to the question so many affluent Americans ask about them: why they have children outside of marriage when they face such an uphill struggle in supporting them.
In America's inner urban core, romantic relationships often proceed at lightning speed, and conception often occurs within a year of when the couple begins "kicking it." The news of a pregnancy, though, puts these new relationships into overdrive, as the would-be mother begins to scrutinize her mate like never before, wondering whether he can "get himself together" - find a job, settle down and become a family man - in time.
Some soon-to-be fathers do rise to the occasion, but others greet the news with threats, denials, abandonment and, sometimes, physical violence. Frequently, though, the magic moment of birth reunites the new parents, who then resolve to stay together for the sake of their child. Most even have plans to marry. Yet despite these intentions, most couples break up well before their child enters preschool.
Ironically, most believe that bearing children while poor and unmarried is not the ideal way to do things. Yet given their limited economic prospects, the poor have little motivation to time their births as precisely as middle-class women often do.
While well-heeled suburban youths envision the professional kudos and chic lifestyles that await them, to the poor, these aspirations are little more than pipe dreams. So the dreams of poor youths often center instead on children. Girls coming of age in inner-city slums value children highly, anticipate them eagerly and believe strongly that they're up to the job of mothering - even in circumstances far from ideal.
When we asked these young mothers what their lives would be like if they hadn't had children, we thought they'd express regret over foregone opportunities for school and careers. Instead, most believe their children had saved them.
They described their lives before conception as spinning out of control - struggles with parents and peers, "wild" risky behavior, depression and school failure. Their children, they say, offer an opportunity to create meaning and intimacy when few emotional resources exist elsewhere. In this social context, putting off having kids to achieve one's dreams is deemed a selfish act.
Like their middle-class counterparts, poor young women set a high financial bar for marriage. Marriage is an elusive, shimmering goal - one that ought to be reserved for those who can support a "white picket fence" lifestyle: a mortgage on a modest rowhouse, a car and some furniture, savings in the bank and enough money left over to pay for a "decent" wedding.
Yet these young women aren't merely content to rely on a man's earnings. Rather, they insist on being economically "set" in their own right before they take marriage vows. This is partly because they want a partnership of equals and believe money buys say-so in a relationship. But means of one's own are also insurance against a marriage gone bad.
Most important, though, poor women want partners they can trust. Their relationships with their children's fathers are often fraught with violence and infidelity, drug and alcohol abuse, criminal activity and the threat of imprisonment. In this tarnished corner of urban America, the social stigma of a failed marriage is far worse than an out-of-wedlock birth, so women feel they must wait three, four and even five years after the birth to ensure a marriage can last.
Promoting marriage among the poor has become the new war on poverty, Bush administration style. And it is true that the correlation between marital status and child poverty is strong. But the poor already believe in marriage - profoundly so. However, given the often perilously low quality of their romantic relationships, we ought to consider whether poor women aren't right to be cautious about marriage.
We live in an America that is profoundly unequal, where the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. This economic reality has infused poor youths with the sense that they've got nothing to lose by an ill-timed birth.
Marital standards have risen for all Americans, and the standards the poor hold are no different from what everyone now wants out of marriage. The poor want to marry, but they insist on marrying well. This, in their view, is the only way to avoid an almost certain divorce.
Doesn't having a child while young and unmarried preclude the possibility of marrying well? Not in these mothers' view. In communities where most parents have children by multiple partners, few expect a "traditional" marriage. Indeed, they take it as a given that husband and wife will bring children from past partnerships to the marriage.
Until poor young women have more access to jobs that lead to financial independence - until there is reason to hope for the rewarding life pathways their middle class-counterparts pursue - the poor will continue to have children far sooner than most Americans think they should, while deferring marriage.
Kathryn Edin is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.