40% of U.S. Children Born to Unwed Mothers

By Alan Stewart Carl | Related entries in News

A new look at U.S. births in 2007 revealed some interesting trends, from the good (we’re at the replacement rate), to the not-so good (teen pregnancies are up), to the complicated (40% of births were to women out of wedlock).

The 4,317,119 births [in 2007], reported by federal researchers Wednesday, topped a record first set in 1957 at the height of the baby boom.

…

The birth rate rose slightly for women of all ages, and births to unwed mothers reached an all-time high of about 40 percent, continuing a trend that started years ago. More than three-quarters of these women were 20 or older.

The article also notes that other reports have shown abortions are at their lowest level in decades. But whether this corresponds to the rise in births is hard to measure.

What interests me most is the 40% of children now being born to unmarried women. Some might see such a statistic as disturbing. But I think it’s much more complicated. Of that 40%, we don’t know how many of those children will be raised by two parents who either choose not to be married or cannot legally be considered married because of their sexual orientation. Additionally, there are mature women who choose to have children despite not being part of a relationship — again, there is no compelling reason to assume the child will not be raised well.

The article I referenced makes no judgments on the statistics, but people undoubtedly will use the numbers to draw conclusions about our society. In my mind, raw numbers tell us too little. The right questions are not about marital status but about whether our nation’s children are being raised well, in healthy environments. As much as some people might believe that the only good situation for children is in the home of a married, heterosexual couple, the reality is not so simple. Clearly, if trends continue, huge portions of our nation will grow up in “non-traditional” households. We’ll have to adjust how we judge quality parenting accordingly.


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8 Responses to “40% of U.S. Children Born to Unwed Mothers”

  1. Mike Says:

    You can see the raw numbers here (see Table 7): http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr57/nvsr57_12.pdf

    I agree with you that the 40% is not significant by itself. However, I am one of those people who think that in general children born into married households are better off, but that’s not saying that two people who are not married can’t provide an equally stable upbringing. In other words, it all depends on whether we are taking about generalities or specific circumstances. Certainly there are some marriages that are toxic, and there are some non-marriages that are very well suited to child-rearing. So while I’d rather see the 40% go down, I’m not going to panic about it.

    But that aside, the numbers show that the number of children born to unmarried women are increasing in all age categories except for under 15. So that includes the “mature” women that you are talking about, making deliberate choices. But that also includes the crucial 15-19 range, which in general is not a good time for child-birth. So I think there is still room for concern, while your general point is well taken.

  2. The Maine View Says:

    I agree that this stat is incredibly misleading. Personally I believe it shows the next generation placing less emphasis on the need for marriage to prove something socially. People don’t follow the old college, career, courting, marriage, then kids pattern anymore. There is far greater variation there.

    Also, as you stated, how would be count same sex couples? Since they can’t marry in nearly all states, a lesbian who had a child would be an unwed mother. That doesn’t mean they are in the same category as say a teenage mother who’s baby-daddy split as soon as that cute baby bump turned into a giant bulge.

    Surely the Anne Colter’s and religious right will spin this as the imminent collapse of America, but from what Alan and I have written we can already see it’s much more complex than that.

  3. Mike Says:

    Wait a minute, as I said in my previous comment (that is awaiting moderation), I agree that the 40% number is too vague. But if you look at the raw numbers (in the link I posted that is awaiting moderation), there is still reason for concern since the number of births between 15-19 is rising.

    But, don’t you think it’s a little hypocritical to criticize the right (in advance) for abusing the 40% number by assuming too much about who make up that 40%, and then go on to make your own assumptions about who make up those numbers? I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that homosexual couples make up less of the 40% than teenagers. So you are guilty of the same thing you are accusing the right of doing.

  4. kranky kritter Says:

    The problem, I think, is that marriage by itself is no longer a convenient proxy for whether or not a child is being raised in an environment with sufficient positive resources.

    I don’t think many folks quarrel with the basic notion that the more resources a child has (across a broadly-construed spectrum that includes things like money, parental attention, social engagement, modeling, enrichment etc), the better it tends to end up for that child.

    In general, marriage tendsto be an indicator of that, albeit imperfectly. I have no doubt that various child-raising arrangements outside of marriage can successfully provide just as rich an environment of resources. The question here, I think, is to what extent?

    Sadly, the waters on this issue are utterly bound to remain clouded by the more partisan takes of both the left and the right. If we want to do right by our kids, I think we all would be well served to be more outcome-oriented, and tolerant of a variety of approaches so long as they produce desirable outcomes.

    I DO think we as a nation would be well-served to be vigilant in determining the scope of what such desirable outcomes are. And if we were able to put partisanship aside, we could probably better notice that there are a whole host of commonly known virtues that are acknowledged not just across the American political spectrum, but across the entire spectrum of global cultures.

    With little trouble, I bet we could quickly come up with a long list of virtues that almost everyone thinks ought to be encouraged, like honesty and determination. With a bit more trouble, we could probably isolate the remaining disagreements on virtues to a small handful, and come up with an approach that allows the next generation to understand these conflicts as basic human conundrums, evergreens that remain unsolved for humans.

  5. John Burke Says:

    This probably doesn’t point to the society going to hell a a handbasket, but it’also probably not good news for the next generation of low-income people.

    I can’t imagine that gay couples account for more than a handful of this 40%. There aren’t that many lesbian couples and gay male couples are mostly looking into adoption (possibly of some of the babies born to unwed teenagers, although a few are hiring “surrogate mothers.”

    While the number of well-off hetero couples choosing to have babies without marrying, I suspect that the vast majority of these babies are being born to poor single mothers who simply will not have the resources to raise them well. Among African-Americans, the unwed rate is now arounf 70% of babies born;it’s not much lower among Hispanics; and it’s growing among low-income whites.

    Pat Moynihan identified this phenomenon correctly as a huge problem for the inner city poor 40 years ago when the unwed rate was only 30% or so. We shouldn’t look away from this problem because we think attitudes about traditional marriage are changing.

  6. kranky kritter Says:

    I agree with all that John. I think we might be able to do a better job of addressing it if such issues were less polluted by social politics. How we make it less polluted, I hav eno idea. Socpns seem to have no give when it comes to abortion, so family planning services that reduce the unwed mother rate via abortion are right out.

    And solibs seem to have no give when it comes to things like attaching hard conditions to public assistance programs. Suppose one suggested that unwed mothers, say, be required to get a norplant or something to prevent additional preganancies while they were on public support and unable to support children themselves? That person would be regarded as roughly equivalent to Hitler, I think.

  7. patrikios Says:

    A major part of the problem is teen pregnancy, which is also increasing somewhat. Scandinavia has much higher out-of-wedlock birth rates than the US, but the vast majority of those are couples in long-term stable relationships; teen pregnancy is very rare.
    One problem in my view is abstinence-only education, which social conservatives advocate, even though all the studies show it has no effect on whether teens have sex. Thus it actually increases teen pregnancy because teens are still having sex, without knowing about birth control.

  8. ExiledIndependent Says:

    Have you all looked at the research on child behavior in homes with married parents versus those that aren’t? It’s quite clear. But who lets data get in the way?

    And pat, I’m going out on a limb here, but my suspicion (data, anyone?) is that teen parents in America knew about birth control before they conceived. It’s not about knowledge, it’s about self control and delayed gratification, critical psychosocial traits that we don’t emphasize in our culture. In fact, most educational psychologists point towards the ability to delay gratification and frustration tolerance as THE critical psychological “skills” to be successful in school. So we may be barking up the wrong tree if we want to reduce unwanted teen pregnancy.

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