New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON – Unmarried mothers gave birth to 4 out of every 10 babies born in the United States in 2007, a share that is increasing rapidly both here and abroad, according to government figures released Wednesday.
Before 1970, most unmarried mothers were teenagers. But in recent years the birthrate among unmarried women in their 20s and 30s has soared – rising 34 percent since 2002, for example, in women ages 30 to 34. In 2007, women in their 20s had 60 percent of all babies born out of wedlock, teenagers had 23 percent and women 30 and older had 17 percent. Indeed, 60 percent of babies born to women aged 20 to 24 were out of wedlock.
Much of the increase in unmarried births has occurred among parents who are living together but are not married, cohabitation arrangements that tend to be less stable than marriages, studies show.
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The pattern has been particularly pronounced among Hispanic women, climbing 20 percent from 2002 to 2006, the most recent year for which racial breakdowns are available. Eleven percent of unmarried Hispanic women had a baby in 2006, compared with 7 percent of unmarried black women and 3 percent of unmarried white women, according to government data drawn from birth certificates.
Titled “Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States,” the report was released by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Out-of-wedlock births are also rising in much of the industrialized world: In Iceland, 66 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers; in Sweden, the share is 55 percent. (In other societies, though, the phenomenon remains rare – just 2 percent in Japan, for example.)
But experts say the increases in the United States are of greater concern because couples in many other countries tend to be more stable and government support for children is often higher.
“In Sweden, you see very little variation in the outcome of children based on marital status. Everybody does fairly well,” said Wendy Manning, a professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “In the U.S., there’s much more disparity.”
Children born out of wedlock in the United States tend to have poorer health and educational outcomes than those born to married women, but that may be because unmarried mothers tend to share those problems.
Decades ago, pregnant women often married before giving birth. But the odds of separation and divorce in unions driven by pregnancy are relatively high. So when a woman gets pregnant, are children better off if their parents marry, cohabitate or do neither? That question is still unresolved, Manning said.
Some experts speculate that marriage or cohabitation cements financial and emotional bonds between children and fathers that survive divorce or separation, improving outcomes for children. But since familial instability is often damaging to children, they may be better off with mothers who never cohabitate or marry than with those who form unions that are later broken.
“There is no consensus on those questions,” Manning said.
In an enduring mystery, birthrates for unmarried women in the United States stabilized between 1995 and 2002 and declined among unmarried teenagers and black women. But after 2002, the overall birthrate among unmarried women resumed its steady climb. In 1940, just 3.8 percent of births were to unmarried women.
The District of Columbia and Mississippi had the highest rates of out-of-wedlock births in 2007: 59 percent and 54 percent, respectively. The lowest rate, 20 percent, was in Utah. In New York, the rate was 41 percent; in New Jersey, 34 percent; and in Connecticut, 35 percent. Sarah S. Brown, chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a nonprofit advocacy group, said sex and pregnancy were handled far too cavalierly in the United States, where rates of unplanned pregnancies, births and abortions are far higher than those of other industrialized nations.
“Getting pregnant and causing a pregnancy is really important,” she said, “and we need to tell young people that you probably shouldn’t do it if you’re a teenager, you probably shouldn’t do it casually, and you probably shouldn’t say that it doesn’t matter if I’m married.”