Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage: Teenagers’ Attitudes, Expectations, and Relationship Patterns. Do Teens’ Attitudes Differ by Background Characteristics?


As discussed in Chapter I, many of the recent policy efforts aimed at supporting healthy marriages have been targeted to low-income families with children. However, in this section we show that it is family structure — and not family income level — that is most closely associated with teens’ attitudes toward marriage. There are also differences in attitudes between teens living in rural and urban areas. Because family structure, family income, and race/ethnicity are all closely related, in the analysis presented below, we use multivariate techniques to identify the separate influences of these factors on attitudes toward marriage.

  • Teens who live with both of their biological parents express the strongest support for marriage.

Data from the 2002 NSFG indicate that teens are more likely to have supportive attitudes toward marriage when they live with both their biological parents. For example, when asked whether it is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single, 66 percent of teens from intact families endorsed marriage, compared with 58 percent of similar teens from other family types (Table III.1). In addition, teens living with both their biological parents were less likely than other teens to approve of divorce (42 percent versus 49 percent) or having children outside of marriage (50 percent versus 61 percent). These differences in teens’ attitudes are statistically significant at the 5 percent level and are adjusted for differences across family structure groups in both family poverty status and racial/ethnic background.

  • Teens from low-income and higher-income families have similar attitudes toward marriage.

Table III.1
Teens’ Attitudes Toward Marriage, by Family Structure and Income Status
Family Characteristics Percentage of Teens Who Agree That:
It is better to get married than to go through life being single Divorce is best solution when couples can’t work out marriage problems It is okay for an unmarried female to have a child

Source: 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).

Notes: Figures are nationally representative of teens ages 15-18 in 2002. Estimates are based on a multivariate analysis that adjusts these percentages for differences across categories in family structure, poverty status, and racial/ethnic background.

* Statistically different from percentage for intact families at the .05 significance level.

Lives with Both Biological Parents
   Yes 66 42 50
   No 58* 49* 61*
Income Relative to Poverty
   Below 200% 61 48 60
   Between 200% and 400% 60 51 58
   At or above 400% 56 43 62
Total 59 48 60

Although teens’ attitudes toward marriage vary by family structure, they do not differ substantially by family income level. In the 2002 NSFG, 61 percent of teens living in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level agreed that it is better for a person to get married than to go through life being single (Table III.1). There was somewhat less support for marriage among teens from higher-income groups, but the differences across income groups were not statistically significant. Similarly, there were no statistically significant differences across income groups in teens’ attitudes toward divorce or nonmarital childbearing. These estimates are adjusted for differences across income groups in both family structure and racial/ethnic background. However, the attitudes of low-income and higher-income teens are also similar when the estimates are not adjusted in this way. Attitudes toward marriage are also similar across subgroups when dividing teens on other measures of socioeconomic status, such as mother’s education level (not shown).

  • High school students in rural areas have more traditional attitudes toward marriage. However, high school students have similar expectations of the likelihood of marriage regardless of where they live.

Teens’ attitudes toward marriage vary substantially between rural and more urban areas. In the 2006 MTF survey, when asked whether people live “fuller and happier lives” if they marry, 41 percent of rural high school seniors agreed that people are happier when married, compared with 33 percent of students from more urban areas (not shown). Similarly, students from rural areas were somewhat less likely than students from more urban areas to endorse cohabitation before marriage (59 versus 65 percent).(3) These differences were statistically significant.

Although high school students living in more urban areas have somewhat less positive views of marriage than rural high school students, they are equally likely to expect to marry some day. In the 2006 MTF survey, 82 percent of high school seniors from both rural and urban areas said they expect to get married at some point. Among those students who expect to get married, 89 percent of those from rural areas and 91 percent of those from urban areas said they expect to stay married to the same person for life.

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