Birth trends: Nonmarital births to women under 30 increasing

Published: Sunday, May 20 2012 3:56 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.

Teen births, long an issue, have been declining overall, and teen women "account for a diminishing share of all births outside of marriage," the report said.

By the numbers

In 2009, there were 19.3 births per 1,000 teens ages 14-17 and 58.2 for teens 18-19. That's a low number compared to the 74.6 per 1,000 births to unmarried women ages 20-24 and 72.7 for ages 25-29.

Child Trends also noted that fewer than half of all nonmarital births were first births. Fifty-nine percent were second or higher-order births, the report said. That was true, too, among teen women ages 15-19; almost 24 percent of their nonmarital births were second or higher-order.

When low-income couples cohabit, 40 percent have kids, some of them born before the parents were living together and some conceived during, Andrew J. Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family in America Today," told the Deseret News. He said he worried about those kids, because the relationships themselves are "so unstable." After living together a year or two, many couples break up. The children of cohabiting couples are more likely to see their parents break up than the children of marriage, though divorce is not uncommon.

It's not a new discovery. The Pew Research Center in March 2009 presented results from its 2007 survey of Americans on the same trend of nonmarital childbearing. It concluded that most Americans say that the growing prevalence of births to unwed mothers is a problem for society, but responses are more mixed — and differ sharply by generation — on the question of whether it is always wrong for an unmarried woman to have a baby. The Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends survey noted a stronger consensus in public opinion about the social cost of out-of-wedlock births than there is about the morality of these births. It documents a shift away from the stigma that used to be attached to nonmarital births.

Of those surveyed, "two-thirds (66 percent) of all respondents said that more single women having children is a bad thing for society, and 59 percent said that more unmarried couples having children is a bad thing for society. These trends generated the most concern among a number of recent demographic changes related to marriage and parenting that respondents were asked to judge.

"Responses are more mixed, however, on the question of whether unmarried women having children is wrong or not. A slight majority of Americans (52 percent) say it is wrong only sometimes (33 percent) or not wrong at all (19 percent). A quarter (26 percent) say it is always wrong and 18 percent say it is almost always wrong."

Generations disagree

They found no difference in views by gender, but lots of difference by generation. Younger Americans, 18-49, said nonmarital births are only wrong "sometimes or not at all." Those 50-64 were evenly split on the question. For those over 65, two-thirds said it is "always or almost always wrong."

Trying to figure out what it all means has been going on as long as the analysis of the data. In 1999, the Institute for American Values published "The Age of Unwed Mothers" and wondered if teen pregnancy was the problem, then answered itself:

"What has changed most in recent decades is not who gets pregnant, but who gets married. Demographically, our 'teen pregnancy' problem is inseparable from the disconnect between marriage and childbearing that increasingly characterizes the procreative behavior of adults in their 20s. Culturally, the 'teen pregnancy' crisis stems largely from a widespread ambivalence about marriage, and especially about the importance of marriage when it comes to raising children, that afflicts adults in our society as well as teens."

Later in the report, the researchers noted teens often feel they are old enough to be good moms, but not to sustain a strong marriage.

The increase in nonmarital births is not just American, either. When the National Center for Health Statistics looked at numbers of 14 countries, it found that the United States is somewhere in the middle. Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom have more, while Ireland, Germany, Canada, Spain, Italy and Japan have fewer.

EMAIL: Lois@desnews.com,, Twitter: Loisco

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