Birthrates were dramatically reduced during the recession among women who did not finish high school, a development that far outpaced the drop among women with higher levels of education, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.
Between 2008 and 2011, birthrates fell 13 percent among women who hadn't finished high school nearly twice as much as for women who had earned bachelor's degrees or more, Pew found. The overall drop continued a trend among U.S. women for the past five decades.
"When people feel that their economic foundations are insecure, they're often reluctant to have a child," said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, which wasn't involved in the Pew study. "We've seen this for many years in places like Spain and Italy and Greece a real problem of unemployment that is linked to low levels of fertility."
Declining birthrates among women without high school diplomas, combined with increased education for American women, has helped push the percentage of new mothers with at least some college education to its highest point ever, Pew found.
Census data reveal that between 1960 and 2011, the share of new mothers with at least some college education leaped from 18 percent to 66 percent.
Higher education levels among mothers can translate to benefits for their children, researchers have found. More highly educated mothers tend to have healthier babies who do better in school later, researchers have found. It is unclear, however, whether education is the reason, or whether educated mothers are different in other ways that help their children, such as being better off economically, Pew wrote.
A shift toward more-educated mothers could also affect what motherhood looks like: Less educated mothers are more likely to be unmarried and have their children at younger ages.
"More-educated moms means older moms," said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher with Pew. "On the one hand, some people would argue older moms are more mature moms." On the other hand, she said, some studies have indicated increased health risks for children of older mothers.
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Almost half of new mothers without high school diplomas were younger than 25, and only 3 percent of new mothers with bachelor's degrees were as young, Pew found. Among new mothers who didn't finish high school, 61 percent of were unmarried, compared with only 9 percent of women with bachelor's degrees or more.
When it comes to how women choose to form families, "education is a marker or a divider today in ways that it might not have been as much in the past," said Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
Although women with less education have been less likely to become mothers during the recession, they still have more children, on average, than women who finish college. It is unclear whether that gap will shrink in coming decades, or whether less educated women who put off having children in bad economic times will simply have those children later, bringing their numbers back up.