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The Economics of Family Structure

  • Derek Neal

A significant literature in demography and demographic history documents clear relationships between the supply of men with stable earnings and marriage rates among women. Wilson (1987) reasons that because single motherhood is an alternative to traditional marriage, circumstances that impede marriage should also encourage single motherhood. However, few studies provide evidence that the supply of marriageable men affects single parenting rates among women in any significant way. To address this puzzle, this paper presents a model based on a specific version of Wilson's hypothesis. The model demonstrates how previous studies based on various regression methods may have misstated the actual relationship between declining marriage market prospects and the prevalence of never-married mothers. Much of the existing literature frames the expansion of welfare and decreasing supplies of marriageble men as two competing explanations for the rise in single motherhood, especially among less educated black women, but the model developed here shows that the interaction between these two factors may be crucial for understanding the demographic trends we observe. Wilson asserts that, after 1970, economically disadvantaged black women responded to poor marriage markets by choosing to raise children on their own, but this choice may not have been desirable or even feasible without the expansion of welfare programs during the 1960s. The logic of assortative mating implies that, during economic downturns, the women who face the worst marriage prospects are themselves economically disadvantaged and may not possess the resources required to raise children on their own. Studies in demographic history indicate that, in previous eras, women in western societies routinely choose to remain single and childless whenever economic crises or wars eroded their marriage market prospects. Never-married mothers are a relatively recent demographic phenomenon.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 8519.

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Date of creation: Oct 2001
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8519
Note: CH LS
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  1. Robert J. Willis, 1999. "A Theory of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 107(S6), pages S33-S64, December.
  2. Akerlof, George A & Yellen, Janet L & Katz, Michael L, 1996. "An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 111(2), pages 277-317, May.
  3. Scott South & Kim Lloyd, 1992. "Marriage markets and nonmarital fertility in the United States," Demography, Springer, vol. 29(2), pages 247-264, May.
  4. Bergstrom, Theodore C & Cornes, Richard C, 1983. "Independence of Allocative Efficiency from Distribution in the Theory of Public Goods," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 51(6), pages 1753-65, November.
  5. Thomas M. Lyons & James J. Heckman & Petra E. Todd, 2000. "Understanding Black-White Wage Differentials, 1960-1990," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(2), pages 344-349, May.
  6. Saul D. Hoffman & E. Michael Foster, 1997. "AFDC Benefits and Nonmarital Births to Young Women," JCPR Working Papers 3, Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint Center for Poverty Research.
  7. Greg Duncan & Saul Hoffman, 1990. "Welfare benefits, economic opportunities, and out-of-wedlock births among black teenage girls," Demography, Springer, vol. 27(4), pages 519-535, November.
  8. Michael J. Brien, 1997. "Racial Differences in Marriage and the Role of Marriage Markets," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 32(4), pages 741-778.
  9. Olsen, Randall J & Farkas, George, 1990. "The Effect of Economic Opportunity and Family Background on Adolescent Cohabitation and Childbearing among Low-Income Blacks," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 8(3), pages 341-62, July.
  10. Mark R. Rosenzweig, 1999. "Welfare, Marital Prospects, and Nonmarital Childbearing," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 107(S6), pages S3-S32, December.
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