- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The playground rhyme about “first comes love, then comes marriage, and then comes the baby in the baby carriage” no longer applies to most young Americans — unless they earn a college degree, says a new study.

Some 48 percent of first births in America are now to unmarried women.

This means “the nation is at a tipping point, on the verge of moving into a new demographic reality, where the majority of first births in the United States precede marriage,” said the study, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” released by several organizations including the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

This emerging trend is alarming, as social scientists have long linked unwed childbearing with poverty, family instability, school failure, substance abuse and mental-health problems.

But bringing marriage and childbearing “back into sync” will not an easy task, study co-author Kay Hymowitz, who joined other family and economic policy scholars Wednesday at a Brookings Institution event.

“Of course, we also recognize that marriage is not for everyone, and that not all parents can or should get married,” Ms. Hymowitz wrote in the report.

But when 20-somethings are in a good relationship, they may want to “marry earlier than today’s social norms suggest,” and other 20-somethings may want to postpone parenthood “until they are in a relationship with someone whom they would choose as a good partner for life.”

Other sponsors of the “Knot Yet” study are the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the Relate Institute. Study co-authors include W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project; Jason S. Carroll, associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and senior fellow at Relate Institute; and Kelleen Kaye, director of research at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

The new report examines economic, cultural and social reasons fueling the “baby first, marriage later” shift for many young Americans. But one aspect is clear: Education is a major factor in this issue of marriage and childbearing.

Women who are high-school dropouts, for instance, typically have their first children around age 20 and marry around age 25, said the study, citing data from 1970 to 2010 or 2011.

Women who finished high school — but not college — typically have their first child around age 24 and marry around age 26.

In contrast, young women who finish college tend to follow the script in the playground rhyme and typically marry by age 27 and have their first child around age 30.

The new study concludes with core questions about how to change educational and economic policies, family policies and the America’s “relationship culture” — including Hollywood’s focus on the romantic antics of young singles — to reconnect marriage and childbearing.

The U.S. teen birthrate has fallen to historical lows, thanks to “the right messages and programs,” the study added. “Now it’s time to extend that record of success to twenty-something women and men.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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