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.
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.
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.
Now obviously, because many of the women giving birth are out of their teens, there's more at play here than sex ed, or the lack of it. What that is does not seem obvious, at least not right now.
But one thing I find intriguing is the comparison between out-of-wedlock births in the US and elsewhere. It doesn't seem like a very useful comparison at all.
That's because, in other countries such as Sweden and Iceland, there are virtually no barriers to abortion or contraception, unlike in the US where, for example, druggists can choose not to carry the Pill or lock up the condoms. That means that, in those countries, women are actively choosing to have babies without marriage, and probably choosing not to even get married. That's different from the wedding crazy US, where people still go to church unlike socialist heathens elsewhere.
Which brings us to Canada, where, as the chart shows, the out-of-wedlock birth rate (for 2006, the latest numbers available) is much lower than in the US. That would include the rate for Quebec, by the way, which is higher than elsewhere in Canada, probably because Quebec provides great support to parents.
One could argue that, culturally, English canada and the US are not much different, at least if you go by our media habits. We watch the same TV, listen to the music, go to the same movies.
So what accounts for the baby gap?
Can something is very very wrong in the US?
SOMETHING'S UP IN THE USA DATE: As I suspected:
Demographer Patrick Heuveline of the University of California-Los Angeles compared non-marital fertility in many of the same countries about a decade ago. He found that U.S. mothers are more likely to be single parents because the non-married couple relationship doesn't tend to last very long, something he says continues to be true, he says.
"There might be little bit more cohabitation now, but it's probably true that the United States remains unique and ahead of other countries for births to single mothers not in a cohabiting partnership," he says.
Kelly Musick, an associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is studying family stability of cohabiting couples with children. Although those numbers are increasing here, Musick says the USA and the U.K. are similar because they have more solo parenting by mothers.
"The relationships of the parents are much less stable in the U.S. than a lot of other countries," she says. "In Europe, where there are high levels of childbearing outside of marriage, when childbearing is not happening in marriage, it's happening in cohabitation. Cohabitations are reasonably stable."
For the record, there's a lot of that kind of co-habitation going on in Quebec.