Non-marital fertility among Mexican American women: exploring the role of social context



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The fundamental aim of this dissertation is to determine why a large proportion of Mexican American women are more likely to begin their ‘pathway’ to family life with a birth rather than with marriage. I use the 1995 NSFG and the NSFG-CDF to explore the relationships between background characteristics, social context, and non-marital fertility among Mexican American women testing hypotheses drawn primarily from two bodies of research; one that focuses on the high levels of non-marital fertility among African American women, and one that focuses specifically on ‘cultural’ characteristics and the unique social experience of Mexican Americans in the United States. One of the most important findings in this dissertation is that race/ethnic differences in non-marital fertility vary by socioeconomic status, being larger among women of higher SES. The story behind these differences varies as well. Among women of lower SES, higher fertility within cohabiting unions explains much of the Mexican American/White difference in non-marital fertility. This is not the case for women of higher SES. Analyses using the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, further exploring the meaning of cohabitation, suggest that cohabitation may serve as a surrogate marriage for women of Mexican origin, though this is less the case for Mexican American relative to Mexican born women. Social context matters too, and, as is the case with Black women, where Mexican American women live is associated with their relatively high non-marital fertility. However, it is the structural characteristics of both the broader (county) and more local (census tracts) contexts that appear to be important. Additionally, while both contexts were important for women of higher SES, only the more localized measures were important for women of lower SES. This suggests that socioeconomic status in part determines the structural opportunities a person has access to. Ultimately, Mexican American nonmarital fertility is likely shaped by their Mexican heritage as well as by their minority status which results in a distinct pattern of behavior, one that is unique from both Mexican and mainstream U.S. cultures.