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Paternal Investment Prospects and Cross-National Differences in Single Parenthood

Nigel Barber
Cross-Cultural Research 2003 37: 163
DOI: 10.1177/1069397103037002001
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/ May 2003


Paternal Investment Prospects

and Cross-National Differences
in Single Parenthood

Nigel Barber

Previous research has shown that when young women have diminished prospects of paternal investment in their children, they are
more likely to reproduce as teens. This study investigated whether
high rates of nonmarital births for 85 countries would be predicted
by diminished prospects of paternal investment as measured by
high male unemployment, low wealth (gross national product
[GNP]), low sex ratios, and high teen birth rates. It was predicted
that single parenthood would increase with female literacy, used as
an index of career orientation. In correlational and regression analyses, single parenthood rates generally declined as paternal investment increased. Single parenthood increased with female literacy
in the regression analysis, possibly because the greater economic
power of women in developed countries makes them less reliant on
economic support from husbands. Single childbearing can thus be
seen either as a response to diminished prospects of or diminished
reliance on paternal investment.
Keywords: single parenthood; out-of-wedlock births; paternal
investment theory; paternal investment; marriage

Cross-Cultural Research, Vol. 37 No. 2, May 2003 163-177

DOI: 10.1177/1069397103251424
2003 Sage Publications


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Cross-Cultural Research / May 2003

Barber (2000a, 2001) reported that teen birth rates increase when
women face a difficult marriage market, that is, a scarcity of marriageable men. Teen births also decreased with economic development and with urbanization of the population, indicating that reproductive decisions of young women are affected by their own
economic prospects and those of potential husbands. This research
investigated whether similar conclusions can be drawn with respect to single parenthood.
In general, if paternal investment prospects are poor, women
reproduce early in life, possibly because delayed reproduction will
not improve their marriage prospects. Such an approach assumes
that female reproductive choices are the primary determinant of
single parenthood. This female choice model derives from the
ideas of Charles Darwin and has been the dominant perspective in
studies of nonhuman and human parental behavior (Hrdy, 1999).
Recently, evolutionists have paid more attention to the reproductive decisions of men with respect to paternal care and single parenthood (Geary & Flinn, 2001; Hewlett, 1992). Some of the key considerations are that men are less likely to remain with the mother
of their child if their coresidence does not contribute to the childs
survival. Another interesting recent idea follows from the notion
that women choose men based on their capacity to provide direct
paternal care in addition to economic resources. One example is
the Aka Pygmies of Central Africa, where some fathers perform
more direct child care than is seen elsewhere (Smuts & Gubernick,
1992). Men of higher social status spend less time in caring for
their children, suggesting that willingness to care for children
makes men more desirable as husbands and that men who are
desirable because of their social standing do not have to provide
child care services to their spouse.
There has been little cross-national or cross-cultural research
designed to investigate either feminine or masculine evolutionary
strategies underlying single parenthood. Indeed, there is little
comparative research of any kind on single parenthood. Hendrix
(1996) investigated social sanctions against illegitimacy using the
Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) database, finding few main
effects and many complex interactions. (The frequency of illegitimacy has apparently not been coded for the HRAF.) Predicting single parenthood rates is important because of the associated social
problems of crime, poverty, poor health behavior, and drug abuse
(Barber, 2000c; Coley & Chase-Lansdale, 1998).

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According to one evolutionary interpretation, children raised by

single mothers or teen mothers are likely to experience a more psychologically stressful early social environment and respond to this
challenge by developing a tougher persona that makes them more
likely to take risks and get into trouble (Barber, 2000c; Belsky,
Steinberg, & Draper, 1991). (The assumption of increased psychological stress has received support from Flinns [1999] work, demonstrating the elevation of stress hormones in paternally deprived
Barber (2000c) argued that it is helpful to articulate a concept of
parental investment analogous to that described by Trivers (1972)
for nonhuman animals and to see social problems as the predictable consequence of development in a low-parental-investment
environment, such as that characteristic of teen childbearing, poverty, and violent or coercive homes. Parental investment is considered a finite resource over which siblings are in competition, so
that it would be reduced in large families and lower in singleparent homes than in two-parent ones (Barber, 2000b). Evolutionary theory is useful for understanding human behavior even when
dealing with phenomena that are characteristic of modern environments, such as eating disorders and academic achievement
(Barber 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 1998d).
The finding that diminished prospects for paternal investment
increases the likelihood of teen childbearing is consistent with the
evolutionary theory of social development, but it is not conclusive
evidence because women in some countries may marry in the teen
years, so that teenage reproduction may not always imply low
paternal investment. It is thus desirable to examine the role of single parenthood (or illegitimacy) as a more unambiguous index of
reduced paternal investment.
Previous research in the United States indicates that single
parenthood is predictable from the marriage market. Thus, African Americans in metropolitan areas where there is a scarcity of
marriageable men have higher rates of single parenthood (Fossett
& Kiecolt, 1991). Working with state-level data, South and Lloyd
(1992) found that rates of nonmarital births decline with increases
in availability of marriageable men, as measured by the sex ratio.
Causal explanations for variation in rates of single parenthood
have focused either on the supply of marriageable men or on economics. The main alternative view focuses on values. At least one
test of a values explanation produced disconfirming results.
Although young African American women have higher rates of

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Cross-Cultural Research / May 2003

single parenthood, South (1993) found that they have just as

strong a desire to marry as Whites. Such approaches are beyond
the scope of this research, which investigated the relationship
between illegitimacy rates and the supply of marriageable men
using cross-national data.
The following predictions were tested:
Hypothesis 1: Single parenthood will increase as the marital opportunity (as measured by the sex ratio or proportion of men to women)
declines, consistent with the negative correlation between teen
births and the sex ratio.
Hypothesis 2: Single parenthood will decline as economic development
and urbanization increase. These predictions follow from previous
cross-national findings on teen births and may reflect the general
decline in fertility with industrial development (Barber, 2000a,
2001; Jones, 1986).
Hypothesis 3: Single parenthood will increase with male unemployment that is indicative of reduced economic prospects of men and increased difficulty for women of finding men who are economically
qualified as marriage partners. Many scholars assume that unemployed men are less marriageable than those having steady jobs, and
Wilson (1997) explained the high rates of single parenthood among
African Americans, for example, in terms of diminished job opportunities.
Hypothesis 4: As women enter paid employment in larger numbers,
they will rely less on the economic support of men and thus be more
likely to raise children as single mothers. Unfortunately, crossnational data on female labor participation are unusable because
some countries include women working on family farms in the labor
force and others do not. In the absence of reliable data on female labor participation, female literacy was used as a proxy measure of entry into careers, using the assumption that women are more likely to
be educated if they are entering careers.


The societies studied comprised the 85 countries for which data

on rates of single parenthood, or illegitimacy, were provided by
Kurian (1997) and for which sex ratios were reported in The World
Factbook (CIA, 1995). The countries in the sample were more economically developed than average, with an urban population of

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63%, compared to the world average of 44%, and a per capita gross
national product (GNP) of $3,631, compared to the world average
of $1,698 (based on log averages that remove the undue impact of a
minority of very wealthy countries and thus place the world average much lower than familiar arithmetic averages). These differences were likely due to the exclusion of poorer countries due to the
unavailability of data. Demographically, the sample was quite representative of the world. Thus, the sex ratio of children younger
than 14 was 103.9, close to the world average of 103.4 (Barber,
2000a). The average teen birth rate for the sample was 5.2%, compared to the world average of 6.0% (Population Reference Bureau,

Kurians (1997) data, obtained from the UN Population Division, were the percentage of births that were illegitimate for 1991,
and they are the most recent data available. He cautioned that the
data are distorted by the informality of marriage rituals and legal
registration in many countries (p. 40). This implies that births
that are socially sanctioned by some form of marriage could show
up as illegitimate births in official statistics. Similar caution is
appropriate in dealing with all such UN data. Such error would be
expected to introduce noise in the data, making it more difficult to
find support for the hypotheses.
One surprising aspect of the data is that single parenthood is
reported so commonly. Thus, for 19% of the countries, illegitimate
births accounted for more than 50% of all births. The average rate
of illegitimacy for the 85 countries was 28.50%. Due to the great
variability of illegitimacy rates (ranging from 0.2% in Tunisia to
90.2% in Sao Tome and Principe), the dependent variable was
transformed to base 10 logarithms. The average of log illegitimacy
rates was 1.21 (antilog 16.22%) 0.56 (SD).

Two sex ratios were used: the sex ratio of children younger than
14 and the sex ratio of adults aged 15 to 64. These sex ratios were
used as crude indices of marital opportunity and were for 1995, the
earliest year for which this information is provided in the CIAs
World Factbook (CIA, 1995). Ideally, marital opportunity would be

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Cross-Cultural Research / May 2003

measured in terms of the ratio of men aged about 18 to 40, the peak
ages of marriage to women aged 15 to 37 because women marry
about 3 years earlier than men (Guttentag & Secord, 1983), but
data were not available that would permit this kind of precision for
most countries. The sex ratio for adults aged 15 to 64 might seem
most relevant to the marriage market, but it is biased by higher
male mortality in this age range. The supply of marriageable individuals may be of greatest importance at the beginning of the
reproductive career, and this could be more accurately reflected in
the sex ratio of children, which would explain why this ratio is predictive of cross-national differences in teen births (Barber, 2000a).
Female literacy rates were used as an index of female interest in
careers (CIA, 1995). Teen birth rates were the percentage of
women aged 15 to 19 giving birth in 1997 or the most recent year
for which data were available (Population Reference Bureau,
1998). One would expect teen births to be positively correlated
with single parenthood because many teen births are to unmarried
women, although this would be more likely in economically developed countries, where marriage is often later, than in poorer ones.
High teen birth rates are indicative of reduced parental investment (Barber, 2001). Including teen births in the regression analysis had two other purposes: it provided some indication of whether
the relationship between parental investment and single parenthood applied mainly to younger women, and it allowed a possible
explanation of geographic differences in single parenthood (specifically higher rates for the Americas) to be investigated. Male
unemployment rates were for 1991 (United Nations, 2000). It was
predicted that high unemployment would disqualify many men as
desirable marriage partners, thus increasing single parenthood.

Control variables included country population in millions to one

decimal place (log-transformed), the proportion of the population
living in cities, the GNP (also log-transformed), and the proportion
of women using some form of contraception (Population Reference
Bureau, 1998). The logic of including a measure of national wealth
(log GNP) is that single parenthood is more likely for poor families
and communities, for example, in the United States (South &

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Baumer, 2000). English illegitimacy rates declined from 1851 to

1911, and this drop is attributable to rising prosperity and to the
movement of the population to cities that had lower illegitimacy
rates (Schellekens, 1995). This urban-rural difference (which is
also mirrored in modern teen birth rates; Barber, 2001), provides a
rationale for controlling urbanization of the population. Countries
with large populations, such as China, are more likely to pursue
antinatalist policies in general and to discourage single parenthood in particular, thus providing a rationale for controlling population size. Contraception data are reported only for married
women, but it was assumed that this would give a good indication
of the prevalence of contraceptive use in a country. Widespread
contraception use would be expected to reduce all births, including
those to unmarried women.
Earlier work has shown that teen births are higher in the Americas (Barber, 2001), so this geographical variable was also used as a
control variable in connection with single parenthood. The logic is
that many teen births are also births to single mothers, so it would
be predicted that single parenthood should also be higher in the

Preliminary analysis consisted of producing a correlation

matrix for independent and dependent variables (Table 1). Independent variables that were entered into the preliminary regression model predicting illegitimacy rates were the two sex ratios,
urbanization, population size, whether the country was in the
Americas, GNP per capita, male unemployment, female literacy,
contraception use, and teen births. A second regression model was
computed with teen births removed to show that the higher illegitimacy ratio of the Americas could be explained in terms of higher
teen birth rates as well as to investigate the role of the other independent variables with this major predictor of illegitimacy
removed. A reviewer of this article objected to including teen births
in the analysis, on the basis that some of these births are marital
and others are not. This objection is appreciated, but including
teen births in the analysis was more than justified by its usefulness in accounting for the higher illegitimacy rate in the Americas.

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Correlations Between Independent Variables and Illegitimacy Ratios With Means and Standard Deviations

Sex Ratio Log


Sex ratio (0-14)
Male unemployment
Female literacy
Teen births
Sex ratio (15-64)
Urban (%)






*p < .05


Population Unemploy- Female Teen Contra- Sex
Literacy Births ception Ratio Urban











98.51 62.51
4.62 18.99



A correlation matrix of illegitimate birth ratios and independent variables is presented in Table 1. From the first column of the
table, it can be seen that illegitimate births were positively related
to teen births and male unemployment and that they were higher
in the Americas. Illegitimacy was negatively correlated with the
sex ratio of children, suggesting that nonmarital births are more
likely if there is a scarcity of young men of marriageable age, but
the correlation with the adult sex ratio did not reach statistical significance. Nonmarital births were unrelated to urbanization or
GNP per capita, suggesting that they do not vary systematically
with level of economic development (but see below). Illegitimate
birth rates were significantly higher in countries having small
Results of the regression analysis are shown in Table 2. From
the first regression model (Panel A), it can be seen that teen birth
rates were strongly predictive of illegitimacy. With teen births
included, illegitimacy rates were not significantly higher in the
Americas. This means that the higher rates of single parenthood in
the Americas (Table 1) are fully explained by the higher rates of
teen births there. Illegitimacy rates declined as the sex ratios of
children and adults increased.
Contrary to the correlational results, illegitimacy declined with
urbanization of the population but increased with log GNP. Illegitimacy increased with female literacy. These effects were surprisingly large given the lack of any simple correlation. With the other
variables controlled, illegitimacy rates were unrelated to contraception use in a country, consistent with the correlational results.
The first model accounted for 64% of the variance in illegitimacy.
The second model (Panel B) contains the same variables as the
first, with teen births excluded. It explains 50% of the variance,
showing that 14% of the variance in illegitimacy rates was
uniquely explained by teen birth rates. The effect of the Americas
was restored, indicating higher illegitimacy rates for countries in
this region. Otherwise, the effects for the second model were similar to those of the first.

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Cross-Cultural Research / May 2003

Regression Analysis of Parental Investment Prospects
and Log Single Parenthood Ratios
Panel A
Sex ratio (0-14 years)
Sex ratio (15-64 years)
Teen births
Female literacy
Male unemployment
Log population
Panel B
Sex ratio (0-14 years)
Sex ratio (15-64 years)
Female literacy
Male unemployment
Log population








NOTE: The model in Panel A accounted for 64% of the variance in single parenthood, F(9, 74) = 13.20, p < .01. The model in Panel B accounted for 50% of the variance, F(8, 75) = 8.41, p < .01.
*p < .05. **p < .01.

The data provided some support for each of the hypotheses. Specifically, single parenthood increased with both measures of marital opportunity (i.e., sex ratiosHypothesis 1), but the sex ratio of
children was a stronger predictor, evidently because it captures the
ratio of young men to young women better than the ratio of adults
(15 to 64 years old), which is contaminated by the differential mortality of men and women, particularly at the upper age ranges and
for underdeveloped countries where the average life expectancy
falls below 65 years. This result was consistent with a parallel finding for teen births (Barber, 2000a).

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Single parenthood declined with economic development, as

indexed by urbanization (Hypothesis 2), but only in the regression
analysis. Interestingly, GNP that increases with economic development emerged as a positive predictor of single parenthood in the
regression analysis (see below for rationale). Single parenthood
increased with male unemployment (Hypothesis 3) that disqualifies men as marriage partners. Single parenthood increased with
female literacy, an indirect measure of female labor participation
(Hypothesis 4), but this result emerged only in the regression
These findings support the conclusion that women are more
likely to reproduce outside marriage if marital opportunities are
bleak due to the unavailability of men of similar age. In this
respect, the data are consistent with earlier results showing that
teen births (many of which are outside marriage) increase when
marriage opportunities for women are poor. There are thus many
parallels between teenage reproduction and single parenthood,
and these were highly correlated across countries, r(83) = .44, p <
The most puzzling aspect of the results was the apparent inconsistency of the findings for variables associated with economic
development. Whereas single parenthood declined with urbanization (as was true of historical England; Schellekens, 1995), it
increased with economic productivity (log GNP). There is thus a
small effect of single parenthood declining with urbanization, as
teen births do (Table 1). Despite this effect, there is also a tendency
for single parenthood to increase in affluent countries. This is probably a consequence of increasing economic power of women due to
their greater participation in paid jobs and careers. The rationale
is that as women earn more income, they become less dependent on
marriage as a form of economic support for raising children. This
possibility receives support from the increase in single parenthood
in Sweden, after many of the economic roles of husbands were
taken on by the welfare state (Popenoe, 1988). It is also supported
by the present finding that single parenthood increased with
female literacy. The underlying logic is that women are more likely
to be educated if they are entering the workforce. It would be interesting to verify this conclusion by looking at higher educational
enrollment for women, which should increase with their entry into
Illegitimate birth ratios were much higher in the Americas than
elsewhere in the world, and this difference was entirely due to

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Cross-Cultural Research / May 2003

higher teen birth rates there, according to the regression analyses,

because removing teen birth rates from the first model (Table 2,
Panel A) restored the effect of the Americas (Panel B). In other
words, the higher rate of single parenthood in the Americas is due
to teenage women there giving birth more often out of wedlock,
something that is not true for older women.
As far as the control variables are concerned, it is interesting
that single parenthood was unrelated to contraceptive use, but this
surprising lack of effect might be due to a limitation of the measure
used, which concerned married women. It is possible, although
improbable, that the contraceptive use of single women in a country is unrelated to the contraceptive use of married women. Single
parenthood was higher in countries with small populations, which
might reflect the efforts of populous countries to reduce their birth
These conclusions must be qualified by acknowledging some
problems with the data. Thus, official statistics on illegitimacy
may be an imperfect measure of paternal investment and may not
be exactly the same as single parenthood because fathers may
remain highly involved with their children even if they are unmarried. In particular, they may live in the same home while their children grow up. Despite this complication, it is nevertheless reasonable to assume that unmarried fathers are less likely to live with
their children. This assumption is justified for Sweden, for example, where the unions of cohabiting, but unmarried, parents last
only half as long as those of married couples, despite the fact that
Swedens divorce rate is the highest in Europe, excluding Russia
(Popenoe, 1988). Another problem was the unavailability of data
for the same year for all variables. This is a common problem in
cross-national research drawing on various data sources. Ideally,
the dependent and independent variables should all be for the
same year, or the independent variables should precede the
dependent variable. This source of error could distort the conclusions, although this would generally be in the direction of producing invalid null results. It can be argued that this error is likely
rather small because most of the variables have large differences
between countries that vary little from one year to the next.
The finding that diminished prospects for paternal investment
increase the likelihood of single childbearing is consistent with the
results for teen births (Barber, 2000a, 2001) and provides a more
direct test of the evolutionary theorizing on which those data were
based. Although the prediction that women should reproduce out-

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side marriage when prospects for paternal investment are diminished received support, skeptical readers may doubt whether there
is a causal connection between paternal investment prospects and
single parenthood rates. One reviewer complained that alternative
hypotheses had not been duly considered. Neither the reviewer nor
the author could devise a noncausal explanation for why single
parenthood would increase with a diminished supply of employed
men and of men of marriageable age, with level of economic development controlled, however. It is possible to construct post hoc
explanations to the effect that both unemployment and a low sex
ratio reduce social sanctions against illegitimacy, for example,
which thereby reduces illegitimacy (Hendrix, 1996), but this is not
really an alternative hypothesis so much as an attempt to fill in the
intervening steps between reduced paternal investment prospects
and illegitimacy. This is worth doing but was beyond the scope of
the present study.
It is interesting that teen births are negatively correlated with
GNP (Table 1) but that single parenthood increases with GNP. A
plausible interpretation is that in affluent countries where women
are active in the workforce, they often delay reproduction while
developing careers (Goldin, 1995), whereas women in poorer countries are likely to be less career-oriented and to begin reproduction
earlier in life whether they are married or not. Another intriguing
difference is that there was a strong negative correlation between
teen births and female literacy (Table 1), whereas single parenthood rises with female literacy. This difference also seems to be due
to career development by women in the sense that their increased
earning power allows them to raise children without the support of
a husband, as previously mentioned. Despite these intriguing differences, rates of illegitimate births respond similarly to teen
births to the marriage market, rising with diminished marital
opportunities for women.

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Nigel Barber received his Ph.D. in biopsychology from Hunter College of
the City University of New York and has had teaching appointments at
Bemidji State University and Birmingham Southern College. His research
interests in evolutionary psychology include parental investment theory,
physical attractiveness fashions, and gender stereotypes. He is the author of
Why Parents Matter: Parental Investment and Child Outcomes (2000)
and The Science of Romance (2002).

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