Society and Culture

When It Comes to Illegitimacy, We’re Living in Separate Worlds: An Update on the White Underclass

The New York Times has gotten around to reporting something that has been known for a couple of months, that in 2007 the U.S. illegitimacy ratio (the proportion of live births that occur to unmarried women) reached the truly remarkable, once unthinkable, figure of 40 percent.

The news behind the news here, something the Times doesn’t mention, is that illegitimacy varies enormously by socioeconomic class. There’s now an exceptionally clean data base for examining this: The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth that followed (among others) women born from 1957 to 1964 through their entire childbearing years. We now know with no statistical complications the profile of their children. Since so much of the commentary about American out-of-wedlock births gets tangled up in issues of race and ethnicity, let’s take them out of the equation and limit the numbers to whites of European origin.

Childbearing among these non-Latino whites was concentrated in the period from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. Their overall illegitimacy ratio was 11 percent. Suppose we break them into four groups. At the high extreme are the white overclass, defined as women who eventually obtained at least 17 years of education and had family incomes of more than $100,000 in the year prior to the birth of the child (2006 dollars). At the low extreme is the white underclass, defined as women who never got more than 12 years of education and who had family incomes of less than $20,000 in the year prior to birth.

In between are the white middle class (women with family incomes of at least $60,000 who are not in the overclass), and the white working class (women with have family incomes of less than $60,000 who are not in the underclass).

Very roughly (a lot depends on what age group you’re talking about), the four classes split the white population 10-40-40-10. Here are their illegitimacy ratios:


It comes down to this: well-educated white women in moderately affluent circumstances almost never had babies without a husband, and women from middle class homes were almost as finicky about requiring a husband. At the same time, white women with no more than a high school education in low-income households were having nearly half of their babies without a husband.

And that was in a population that had an overall illegitimacy ratio of 11 percent. Today, the illegitimacy ratio for non-Latino whites is 28 percent. How do the classes break down now? As it happens, I’ve spent the last few weeks exploring that question. I’m not done, and want to save that discussion for a formal presentation in any case, but here are some tentative estimates: The illegitimacy ratio for the white underclass is probably now in the region of 70 percent. I think that the proportion for the white working class may be above 40 percent. The white middle class is approaching 20 percent—a scarily high figure when you think about all the ways that the middle class has been the spine of the nation.

The white overclass? They’re still living in the 1950s—their ratio is probably about 4 or 5 percent tops.

Funny how these things work out. I’ll take some credit for helping to raise the alarm about rising white illegitimacy, and, with Dick Herrnstein in The Bell Curve, pointing out how segregated the elite was becoming from the rest of society. But that was more than 15 years ago. It didn’t occur to me that the elite could remain this segregated for this long on something as basic as family structure. But while the elite may continue to live in its pleasant little world for a while, that  world is not going to bear much resemblance to the rest of America. And, increasingly, the rest of America isn’t going to bear much resemblance to the America we used to celebrate.

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