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Birth outside of marriage.qxd

4301 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 100, Washington, DC 20008 Phone 202-362-5580 Fax 202-362-5533 Births Outside of Marriage: Perceptions vs. Reality
By Elizabeth Terry-Humen, M.P.P., Jennifer Manlove, Ph.D. and Kristin A. Moore, Ph.D.
Births to unmarried women have risen substantially in recent decades. In 1970, the over- whelming majority of children in this country - 89 percent - were born to married couples.
By 1999, one in every three births occurred outside of marriage. This increase in child-
bearing outside of marriage - nonmarital childbearing - has been under way at least since the1940s. After very large increases in the 1970s and 1980s, nonmarital childbearing rates peaked inthe first half of the 1990s, and then declined slightly. However, rates of nonmarital childbearingremain high, as have concerns about what this means for children, families, and the larger society.
Indeed, the high rate of nonmarital childbearing is one of the factors that led to welfare reform.
Research supports the anecdotal observation that unmarried mothers and their children facegreater obstacles and suffer greater strains than married couples and their children. Much less isknown about the specific characteristics of the women who have births outside of marriage. Thisresearch brief paints a fuller picture of nonmarital childbearing. The data presented here dispelmany inaccurate perceptions about unmarried mothers. The classic image of an unmarried moth-er is that she is a teen, a member of a racial or ethnic minority group, a first-time mother of achild born outside of marriage, and that she is not in a relationship with the father of her child.
The data show that the reality today is often quite different.
Trends in Nonmarital Child-
The percentage of births to unmarried women has The percentage of births to unmarried
women increased substantially until
1994 and has since plateaued. Data
assembled and analyzed by the National Cen- ter for Health Statistics show that the per- centage of births that occur outside of mar- riage has risen dramatically over the past several decades. Approximately one-tenth of all births (11 percent) were to unmarried women in 1970, compared with one-third (33 Source: Ventura SJ, Bachrach CA. Nonmarital childbearing in the United States, 1940-1999.
percent) of all births in 1994 (see Figure 1).1 National vital statistics reports; vol 48 no 16. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health This percentage remained virtuallyunchanged from 1994 until 1999. „ The vast majority (79 percent) of births to „ Almost a quarter (23 percent) of births to The rate of births to unmarried women
„ Rates for women older than 29 were also increased until the mid-1990s and then
declined slightly. The nonmarital birth
rate measures the number of births for every rate rose steadily across the second half of thetwentieth century for U.S. women. For exam- Teens account for a diminishing share
ple, the nonmarital birth rate for all women of all births outside of marriage. In
aged 15-44 increased from 26.4 births per 1970, 50 percent of all nonmarital births 1999, less than one-third of all nonmarital unmarried women in 1994. After peaking in births (29 percent) were to teens. The pro- 1994, the nonmarital birth rate declined to portion of all nonmarital births to women in 43.9 births per 1,000 unmarried women aged increased from 32 percent in 1970 to 36 per-cent in 1999. The largest percentage point Women in their early twenties have the
increase during this time period was found highest rate of births outside of mar-
riage. When most people think of nonmari-
less than one-fifth (18 percent) of all nonmari- tal childbearing, the image that comes most tal births were to women aged 25 and older.
readily to mind is of a teen mother. In the By 1999, women aged 25 and older accounted public perception, nonmarital childbearing is for more than one-third (34 percent) of all majority of teens who give birth are indeed not married, women in their early twenties Teens account for a diminishing share of nonmarital births.* have the highest nonmarital birth rates (seeFigure 2).1 In 1998: Women in their early twenties have the highest rates of births * Due to rounding, percentages may not equal 100%.
Source: Ventura SJ, Bachrach CA. Nonmarital childbearing in the United States, 1940-1999. National vital statistics reports; vol 48 no 16. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics. 2000.
Still, many nonmarital births were pre-
ceded by teen births. Although the per-
centage of all nonmarital births to teens has declined, teen mothers are likely to have sub- sequent births outside of marriage. Between 1992 and 1995, more than one-third (35 per- Source: Ventura SJ, Bachrach CA. Nonmarital childbearing in the United States, 1940-1999.
National vital statistics reports; vol. 48 no 16. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health twenty and older were preceded by a teenage „ In comparison, teens aged 15-17 had 27.0 birth.2 In addition, among all first nonmarital births, teens do account for a larger propor- Only about half of nonmarital births are
first births. The public perception is that
The majority of births outside of marriage are nonmarital births are first births. RecentVital Statistics estimates show that only 50 percent of all nonmarital births in 1998 were Family Growth to examine nonmarital births between 1992 and 1995. It also found that about half of nonmarital births were first births. Of the remaining nonmarital births, slightly more than one-quarter were second- born children and slightly less than one-quar- Source: Henshaw, SK. Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, Family Planning Perspectives, ter were third or later births.2 Thus, despitethe widely held idea that births outside of nic minorities. And, indeed, the nonmarital marriage are generally first births, about half birth rate for black women has been higher births. In addition, 16 percent of all nonmari- women since statistics began to be collected tal births in 1994 occurred to “formerly mar- by race and ethnicity in 1940.1 Over the past ried women” who are currently divorced or three decades, however, the United States has witnessed an increase in the nonmarital birthrate among white women and a decline among The majority of births outside of mar-
riage are unintended at conception. The
public perception is that many nonmarital birth rate of 13.9 births per 1,000 unmar- births are planned by the mother. In reality, the vast majority of nonmarital pregnancies (78 percent of pregnancies to never married women and 63 percent of pregnancies to for- merly married women) are unintended.4 Data birth rate of 95.5 births per 1,000 unmar- from the mid-1990s show that more than 60 ried women aged 15-44. This rate declined percent of unintended pregnancies to unmar- by almost one-quarter by 1998, to 73.3 per according to 1994 estimates, more than half (55 percent) of all nonmarital births were Racial and ethnic disparities in nonmarital birth rates that a birth is unintended differs by prior marital status. For example, 58 percent of tended, compared with 37 percent of births to (see Figure 4).4 In comparison, 22 percent of births that occur within marriage are unin- Racial and ethnic disparities in nonmar-
Source: Ventura SJ, Bachrach CA. Nonmarital childbearing in the United States, 1940-1999. National vital statistics reports; vol 48 no 16. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics.
ital childbearing are declining. The pub-
lic perception is that childbearing outside ofmarriage is driven by births to racial and eth- nonmarital birth rate of all racial and eth- The percentage of all nonmarital births that are to cohabiting nic groups. Data have only been collected nonmarital birth rate was 89.6 births per 15-44. The rate steadily increased, reach- ing a peak in 1994 (101.2 per 1,000) before The Cohabitation Factor
Cohabitation refers to two unmarried peo- Source: Bumpass, L and Lu, H. Trends in cohabitation and implications for children’s family context in the United States, Population Studies, March 2000, pp29-41.
ple who are living together in a marriage-like relationship. The proportion of people Whites show the greatest increase in
births to cohabiting couples. Data
living in a cohabiting union is increasing.
In 1987, one-third (33 percent) of the adult reported they had ever cohabited, compared race and ethnicity in the percentage of non- with almost one-half of adults (45 percent) marital births to cohabiting couples (see in 1995.5 Sometimes these cohabiting cou- whites had higher proportions of nonmari-tal births to cohabiting parents (53 percent The proportion of nonmarital births
and 50 percent respectively) than African to cohabiting parents is increasing.
women are not in contact with the father of births within cohabitation, increasing from their child. The reality is that childbearing 33 percent in the early 1980s to 50 percent outside of marriage is not confined to sin- nonmarital births that occurred to cohabit- Whites show the greatest increase in births to cohabiting ing couples has increased from 29 percent in the early 1980s to 39 percent in the early 1990s (see Figure 6).5 Recent declines in the percentage of births to married couplesare almost entirely due to an increase in births to cohabiting parents.5 Yet, cohabit- ing relationships are fragile and relatively short in duration, with less than half last- ing five years or more.5 Cohabiting fami- lies are also more likely to be economically Source: Bumpass, L and Lu, H. Trends in cohabitation and implications for children’s family context in the United States, Population Studies, March 2000, pp29-41.
The majority of unmarried mothers are
romantically involved with the father
The percentage of women who are unmarried has of their baby at the time of the birth.
Although nonmarital relationships are less stable than marital unions, the majority of cohabiting with or "romantically involved" with the father of their child at the time of the birth (see Figure 8).7 A recent study of areas (Fragile Families and Child Well- Being Study) found that 45 percent of Source: Ventura SJ, Bachrach CA. Nonmarital childbearing in the United States, 1940-1999. National vital cohabiting with the father of the child at the statistics reports; vol 48 no 16. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics. 2000.
time of the birth. An additional 37 percent and older. For example, in 1970, less than one-reported they were romantically involved fifth (16 percent) of all women aged 25-29 were unmarried. By 1998, almost one-half (45 per- cent) were unmarried. The decline in mar- Most urban unmarried mothers cohabit or are “romantically involved” with the father of their child at the time of birth.
riage is due to a later age at first marriage,increases in cohabitation and divorce, and a growing number of people who never marry.8,9 In addition, the percentage of unmarried preg-nant women who marry before they give birth has declined.1 Thus, the increase in nonmari- tal childbearing reflects not so much changesin childbearing patterns as in marriage and Source: Fragile Families Research Brief, Dispelling Myths About Unmarried Fathers, Bendheim- Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Princeton University & Social Indicators Survey A variety of factors may have con-
Center, Columbia Univeristy, May 2000.
tributed to the trends in nonmarital
with the child's father but were living apart births. During the time period when the non-
from him.7 (The remaining 18 percent of marital birth rate first soared and then more
unmarried mothers reported they were nei- recently declined slightly, many changes were
ther living with the child's father nor in a occurring both politically and socially in the
romantic relationship with him.)
United States. Factors that may have con-tributed to the increase in the nonmarital Behind the Trends in Non-
birth rate in past decades include changes in marital Childbearing
social norms; stagnant wages for low-skilled The percentage of women who are workers; and, in some places, urban social dis-
unmarried is increasing in all age cate- integration related to drugs, unemployment,
gories. The increase in childbearing outside and poverty.
of marriage reflects a reduction in the likeli-
hood of marriage at all ages. For example, the Factors that may be associated with the recent
percentage of women aged 15-44 who were small decline in nonmarital birth rates include:
unmarried increased from 36 percent in 1970 „ A vigorous economic expansion;
to 49 percent in 1998.1 Increases in the per- „ Changes in the age composition of the
centage of unmarried women can be seen in
every age group (see Figure 9),1 with especially „ Use of new methods of contraception, espe-notable increases among women aged twenty „ A focus on males as targets for reproductive Perception vs. Reality
health policies and an increased emphasis The data presented in this research brief chal-on child support enforcement; lenge some common notions about women who „ Welfare reform efforts targeting nonmari- have births outside of marriage, as illustrated tal births and the strengthening of mar- by these five contrasts:riage; „ The public perception is that nonmarital „ Increased public education about HIV and births are equivalent to teen births. The reality is that women aged twenty or older „ A rise in conservative attitudes toward pre- marital births, and that women in theirtwenties have the highest rates of nonmar- An Important Implication of
ital childbearing. The increase in nonmar- Nonmarital Childbearing
ital childbearing in the past three decades Unmarried mothers and their children
are more likely to be disadvantaged. The
image projected by movie stars or well-educat- „ The public perception is that nonmaritaled, well-paid professional women who choose births are first births. The reality is that unwed motherhood has little in common with the situation of most unmarried mothers.
who have already had one or more children.
Women who have nonmarital births are, on „ The public perception is that nonmaritalaverage, more disadvantaged than women who have births within marriage, both before and women who have nonmarital births have lower reality is that almost one in six nonmarital educational attainments and lower incomes, are less likely to work full-time, and are more been married but are now divorced or wid- likely to receive welfare.11 Women who have a nonmarital birth are also less likely to marry „ The public perception is that nonmaritalby age 35.12 Being older doesn't seem to make births are not much of an issue for whites.
the circumstances of unmarried motherhood The reality is that, although black and much easier. Unmarried women who are aged 20 and older at the time they give birth are likely to be as poor as their teenage counter- increases in nonmarital childbearing in thepast three decades, while nonmarital birth Children born to unmarried mothers are more likely to be economically disadvantaged.14 and stabilized among Hispanic women.
These children are more likely to grow up in a „ The public perception is that unmarriedsingle parent family and to experience multiple living arrangements during childhood.5,15 been abandoned by the child's father. The reality is that the relationship context of among children born to unmarried parents are associated with reduced educational attain- ment, an increased risk of having premarital unmarried mothers are cohabiting with the sex during adolescence and of having a pre- father of their baby, at least at the time of marital birth, and a premature assumption of the birth. In addition, even when couples are not married or living together, a largepercentage of unmarried mothers reportthat they are romantically involved with the father of the baby and hope to marry. that many children raised in other circum-Nevertheless, history suggests that these stances develop well. Thus, future researchunions have a disproportionate risk of dis- should explore the factors that promote well-solution. being among children born to unmarried par-ents.
Although nonmarital childbearing has Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research
increased dramatically across several decades, center that studies children and families. For
there has been a recent modest downturn in additional information, please visit our web site
nonmarital birth rates, and the percentage of at www.childtrends. org.
women who have a birth outside of marriage
has stabilized. At this point, it is difficult to Child Trends thanks the Charles Stewart Mott
determine whether this is a temporary small Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett
decline or the start of a sustained reduction in Foundation for support of this brief and other
childbearing outside of marriage. We do know work on teen and nonmarital childbearing.
that historical changes in marriage patterns - Child Trends also acknowledges the John D. and
not fertility rates per se - have driven the Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for general
increases in childbearing outside of marriage.
Policy makers and the public have various motivations for wanting the decline in non- 1Ventura SJ, & Bachrach CA. Nonmarital childbearing in themarital childbearing to continue. The federal United States, 1940-99. National vital statistics reports; vol 48 no 16. Hyattsville, Maryland: National Center for Health Statistics.
welfare reform law, passed in 1996, set out to 2000.
encourage the formation and strengthening of 2Unpublished tabulations of NSFG data by Child Trends. 2001.
two-parent families in an effort to reduce 3Ventura, SJ. National Center for Health Statistics unpublisheddependence on public assistance and provide data. 2001.
4Henshaw, S. Unintended Pregnancy in the United States. Family better environments for children. Some mem- Planning Perspectives, 30, 1, 24-29, 46. 1998.
bers of the public want to increase marriage 5Bumpass, L, and Lu, H. Trends in cohabitation and implicationsrates and strengthen the institution of the for children's family contexts in the United States. Population two-parent family because of their belief in the 6Seltzer, JA. Families Formed Outside of Marriage. Journal of sanctity of marriage. Still others want to Marriage and the Family, 62, 4, 1247-1268. 2000.
reduce high abortion rates associated with 7Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing,nonmarital pregnancy. Princeton University and Social Indicators Survey Center, Colum-bia University. Fragile Families Brief, "Dispelling Myths AboutUnmarried Fathers," May 2000.
Child Trends focuses on the children born to 8U.S. Bureau of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Populationunmarried parents because they are at a dis- Reports, Series P20-514, Marital status and living arrangements:tinct disadvantage as they move through life. March 1998 (Update), and earlier reports, MS-1. Marital status of the population 15 years old and over, by sex and race: 1950 to pres- Statistically, mothers who bear and raise chil- ent.
dren without the support of a husband are 9Abma, J, Chandra A, Mosher W, Peterson L, & Piccinino L. Fer-more likely to be poor and to report greater tility, family planning, and women's health: New data from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth. National Center for stress than their married counterparts, and Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23, 19. 1997.
their children are more likely to have academic 10Wertheimer, R, Jager, J, & Moore, KA. State policy initiativesand behavioral problems. Research findings for reducing teen and adult nonmarital childbearing: Family plan-show that wanted children raised by both of ning to family caps. New Federalism Issues and Options for States, Series A, No. A-43, November 2000.
their biological parents in a low-conflict mar- 11Driscoll, AK, Hearn, GK, Evans, VJ, Moore, KA, Sugland, BW, &riage have an easier lot in life and the best Call, V. Nonmarital childbearing among adult women. Journal ofchance for healthy development.6,18,19,20 We Marriage and Family, 61, 1, 178-187. 1999.
recognize that many children will not be raised Bennett, NG, Bloom, DE, & Miller, CK. The influence of non- marital childbearing on the formation of first marriages. Demogra- in families that meet all of these criteria, and phy, 32, 1, 47-62. 1995.
13Hoffman, S.D., & Foster, E.M. Economic correlates of nonmari-tal childbearing among adult women. Family Planning Perspec-tives, 29, 3,137-140. 1997.
14Bane, MJ, & Ellwood, DT. Slipping into and out of poverty: Thedynamics of spells. Journal of Human Resources, 21, 1-23, 1986.
15Aquilino, WS. The life course of children born to unmarriedmothers: Childhood living arrangements and young adult out-comes. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 2, 293-310. 1996.
16Wu, LL. Effects of family instability, income, and income stabili-ty on the risk of a premarital birth. American Sociological Review,61, 2, 386-406. 1996.
17Moore, KA, Morrison, DR, & Glei, D. Welfare and adolescent sex:The effects of family history, benefit levels and community context.
Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 16, 2/3, 207-238. 1995.
18Amato, PR. The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Chil-dren. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 4, 1269-1287. 2000.
19Cherlin, AJ, Furstenburg, FF, Chase-Lansdale, PL, Kiernan, KE,Robins, PK, Morrison, DR, Teitler, & JO. Longitudinal studies ofeffects of divorce on children in Great Britian and the UnitedStates. Science, 252, 1386-1389.
20McLanahan, S & Sandefur, G. Growing Up with a Single Parent:What Hurts, What Helps. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UniversityPress, 1994.


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