AP/Jae C. Hong

Low employment opportunities seem to be discouraging some young adults from marrying before having kids.

In the U.S., the consequences of a widening economic gap are serious and diverse. Studies have linked greater income inequality to higher rates of obesity, mortality, and teenage birth rates, poorer educational attainment and social cohesion, lower rates of marriage, and many other outcomes.

Yet, for all we know about economic inequality in terms of broad, macroscopic trends, there’s relatively little research-backed, individual-level evidence that bears them out. Most of those aforementioned findings draw from aggregated statistics at the national, state, or metropolitan levels. By the same token, individual-level mechanisms actually driving income inequality’s effects aren’t entirely understood. For example, the income gap per se is not causing more individuals to die in certain areas—but stress related to unemployment, a lack of access to healthcare, and dwindling community support could be.

Research has also indicated that, in areas with greater income inequality, more young adults without college degrees are having children before they’re getting married. That’s an important and arguably worrying trend; children born to stable households of two parents tend to be better off. But what’s actually driving all of these non-marital births? What is it about income inequality that makes a difference in how young adults choose to have kids?

Having spent decades studying the changing dynamics of the American family, Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, sought out to answer that question. The findings were published Thursday in the American Sociological Review.

Cherlin and two other researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that followed 9,000 Americans from the time they were adolescents in 1997 to when they were adults in 2011. Crucially, they augmented this with information on which counties the survey respondents lived in, the level of household income inequality in those counties according to Census data, and the relative availability of “middle-skilled” jobs (which don’t require college degrees to obtain and pay above poverty wages) for both men and women. “Middle-skilled” jobs include clerical jobs, sales jobs, health-care support jobs, construction, transportation, and repair work.

Analyzing this data, the researchers first confirmed that greater income inequality at the county level was indeed strongly associated with “a reduced likelihood of transitioning to marriage prior to a first birth for both women and men,” as the report states.

They also found evidence that might explain, at least in part, why this might be: Among high-school-educated young adults, both men and women were more likely to marry before having their first child in places where there were more middle-skilled jobs available. The reverse was true for men where fewer middle-skilled jobs were available. In those places, young men with high-school degrees were less likely to marry before having a child.

Cherlin believes that this lack of good job opportunities is making young men in particular less attractive as long-term partners in marriage. But in the absence of marriage, young women still want to be parents—that’s been shown among women on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, and Cherlin believes it also holds towards the middle. So even as they forgo marriage, young people are not forgoing the deeply meaningful experience of parenthood.

“Children are a basic reward in life that’s hard to compete with,” says Cherlin, adding that this can be especially true for people without satisfying jobs or high incomes. And as social norms change, it’s become more acceptable to be a parent without being a spouse.

More than most research on income inequality, Cherlin’s study sheds light on what income inequality really looks like on the ground, and why it matters.  In this case, it appears that the availability of good jobs might be just as important as income inequality, if not more so, in explaining why young people are getting discouraged from marriage. In that sense, the research offers a more nuanced understanding of what the phrase really means.

“In some cases, income inequality means the extent to which the top one percent are getting a disproportionate share of wealth,“ says Cherlin. “But for the picture I’m painting, it’s more about that hole in the middle of the jobs market.”

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