Working Papers

Socio-Economic Variation in the Effect of Economic Conditions on Marriage and Non-marital Fertility

Evidence from the Great Recession


The United States has become increasingly characterized by stark class divides in family structure. Poor women are less likely to marry than their more affluent counterparts, but far more likely to have a birth outside of marriage. Recent theoretical and qualitative work at the intersection of demography and cultural sociology suggests that these patterns are generated because poor women have high, nearly unattainable, economic standards for marriage, but make a much weaker connection between economic standing and fertility decisions. We use the events of the Great Recession, leveraging variation in the severity of the crisis between years and across states, to examine how exposure to worse state-level economic conditions is related to poor women’s likelihood of marriage and of having a non-marital birth between 2008 and 2012. In accord with theory, we find that women of low socio-economic status (SES) exposed to worse economic conditions are indeed somewhat less likely to marry. However, counter to theoretical expectations, we do not find evidence that economic standing is disconnected from non-marital fertility. Unmarried low-SES women exposed to worse economic conditions significantly reduce their fertility. Further, the relationship between recessionary conditions and non-marital fertility is of a similar magnitude to the relationship between marriage and economic conditions among low-SES women and the negative relationship between economic conditions and non-marital fertility among low-SES women is larger than the negative association between recessionary economic conditions and fertility among more advantaged women.