Birth trends: Nonmarital births to women under 30 increasing

Published: Sunday, May 20 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

Clare Hansen is planning for three major events later this month: She will earn a two-year associate's degree from a community college in Indiana, she will celebrate her 25th birthday and she will give birth to her first child, a baby girl she plans to name Clarajae.

After the baby is born, she will work the night shift at a hospital in Indianapolis, where she lives with her boyfriend. He'll provide overnight child care.

Hansen and her unborn baby are part of a national trend that's been growing for more than 40 years. While most mothers are married when they have children, 4 in 10 babies were born outside of marriage in 2009, the continuation of a steep increase in nonmarital childbearing that began around 1970. It's a 46 percent jump in the past 20 years.

Those increases were seen in all major racial and ethnic groups and for all age groups, though they were highest among women in their 20s, according to a report released late last year by Child Trends, which warns that the shifting societal norm comes with some real challenges. More than half of all births to American women under 30 were outside of marriage. And two-thirds of all births in America are to women under 30. Media and sociologists both laud it as a possible "generational change."

More than half of nonmarital births are also to cohabiting couples, so those are not the single-mother births of days past. Clarajae will be born in a household that includes both her biological parents. As Julie Shapiro, a law professor at the Seattle University School of Law, noted recently, "most unmarried mothers aren't single mothers."

The shift is running parallel to one that makes marriage more likely for those who are college-educated and less likely for those who are not. It's a pattern lamented recently by Charles Murray in his book, "Coming Apart." In a phone interview, Murray talked of the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots, not only in terms of money but in terms of social traditions like marriage. He noted that nearly all college-educated women are married when they give birth. It's increasingly unlikely among those with low incomes and less education. It is time, he said, for those with money and wealth to "start preaching what they practice."

The children

The increase in birth without marriage matters in particular because of the possible effect on the children. Cautions Child Trend, "There are several reasons to be concerned about the high level of nonmarital childbearing. Couples who have children outside of marriage are younger, less healthy and less educated than are married couples who have children. Children born outside of marriage tend to grow up with limited financial resources, to have less stability in their lives because their parents are more likely to split up and form new unions, and to have cognitive and behavioral problems such as aggression and depression."

Even when children live with both biological parents, as is often the case in cohabiting couples, the children of not-married parents "are more likely to be poor and to face multiple risks to their health and development," the report said.

It also notes that the outcome is not "destiny." Some children will fare better, others worse in the circumstance. And people can make a difference.

The Child Trends research brief drew on numerous published reports and its own analysis of data to find that "as nonmarital childbearing has become more commonplace, the makeup of women having children outside of marriage has changed, often in ways that challenge public perceptions. For example, an increasing percentage of women who gave birth outside of marriage live with the father of the baby in a cohabiting union and are over the age of 20. Moreover, the percentage of women having a birth outside of marriage has increased faster among white and Hispanic women than among black women."

Besides those who are half of a cohabiting couple, the new moms may be unwed teens, single women without regular partners and women in same-sex couples, among others.

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