Most Mothers Under 30 Are Unmarried Mothers

Okay, this is a topic I’ve been meaning to get to for a while.  In some ways what I want to talk about is as much how news is framed as it is what the news is.

Not long ago there was a whole spate of stories with headlines like “For Women Under 30, Most Birth Occur Outside of Marriage.”   That particular article (which is from the NY Times) begins this way:

“It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.”

I think the trigger for this article was the release of this report from Child Trends.    That report says that in 2009 41% of all births in the US occurred outside of marriage.  This is up from 28% in 1990 and 11% in 1970.   (It also says that preliminary evidence is that the percentage did not increase in 2010, but that doesn’t seem to be as newsworthy.)  You can also read a short discussion of the statistics on the Child Trends blog.

The question, I think, is what to make of all this.  And that in part depends upon what it is we actually know.  I’ve been staring at the Child Trends report (which seems to be dated November, so I’m not sure why it got to be news in February) for some time, and I’m really not sure.  There’s a lot of information there and figuring out what it means requires both time and attention to detail.

Notice, for instance, that the topic at hand is births to unmarried mothers.   As I’ve said before (and I’m hardly alone in this observation) “unmarried mothers” is a pretty expansive category.  It is not the same as “single mothers” as it includes women raising kids with a partner to whom they are not married.  THis means that the vast majority of lesbian mothers probably show up in the “unmarried mother” category, as there aren’t that many married lesbians (and were even fewer in 2009.)   It also means that women in male/female unmarried couples are in the category “unmarried mothers.”

In fact, if you scroll through the Child Trends report, you’ll see this heading (in bold) on page 4: 

More than one-half of nonmarital births occur within cohabiting relationships.

I think what this means is that fewer than 1/2 of the non-marital births are actually births to single mothers.  To put it differently, most unmarried mothers aren’t single mothers.

Now that is reported in the NYT, way down in the bottom of the first page.  But there is also at least one reference to single mothers a couple of paragraphs above here.   Also before that in the NYT is the (to my mind inevitable) statement:

Researchers have consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.

I’ve left the original links in there (I hope) so that you can see that in some ways these only repeat or confound the confusion.  The second link, for example, is to a work about children not being raised by both biological parents–yet many of the children being raised by cohabiting couples are being raised by both biological parents.    The first link suggests the critical question is whether those parents are married.   Thus, it seems to me, the two studies aren’t really focussed on the same thing.

Perhaps most striking to me is the heading in the original report that immediately follows the one quoted above.  It reads:

The majority of nonmarital births are unintended.

This, it seems to me, offers a rather different take on what is going on.  As the NYT notes, fifty years ago 1/3 of marriages were prompted by a pregnancy–presumably an unintended pregnancy.   Today many of those marriages do not happen.   Perhaps this is because there is less stigma to giving birth outside of marriage.   But it seems to me rather a leap to say that if we reintroduced stigma so that all those women got married again we’d have made some great leap forward.  If people do not intend to have children (yet) because they are not emotionally or financially ready to do so, encouraging them to marry may not solve the problem.   Indeed, doesn’t this rather suggest that the problem is the unintended pregnancies?  And isn’t there a rather more obvious cure for that?  (Hint:  See yesterday’s post.)

All of this is really to say that there is a great deal of information here but it is difficult to figure out what conclusions to draw.   The question of correlation vs. causation is always central.

I can do little better than quote (rather at length) from the end of the Child Trends blog entry about the report.

Child Trends researchers have been examining childbearing trends for 25 years.  Based on our experience and insights, we know there are not one- size- fits- all answers to what drives these trends.  As an organization focused on child well-being, we take a particular interest in what these trends mean for  children,   We do know that positive parental relationships are associated with better outcomes for children and families regardless of income, race, ethnicity, or family structure.  (See our brief from last year.)   We also know that, on average, children born to unmarried parents are more likely to be poor and to face multiple risks to their health and development, even when born to parents who live together in a cohabiting relationship.

But statistical probabilities are not destiny.  There are children raised by unmarried mothers or  fathers who excel.  And there are children raised by married parents who struggle and fail.  The data highlight important trends and vulnerable populations.  What we do with that information is up to all of us.





7 responses to “Most Mothers Under 30 Are Unmarried Mothers

  1. I did not read the article:

    So if I read your post correctly less than 20.5% of the births in 2009 fit the criteria that was used in the 1970 stating 11%. That over 40 years that percent almost doubled. That is not startling at all.

    The CDC report linked below shows this:
    1951 – 39 births out of 1,000 live births were illegitimate – 3.9%
    1961 – 53 births out of 1,000 live births were illegitimate – 5.3%

    So between 1961 to 1970 the percent almost doubled…

    And then with birth control becoming more and more accessible and safe abortion available (vs back alley) – the followng 39 years saw about the same increase in percentage as happened between 1961 and 1970…

    Society from my era also viewed us “illegitmate children” as feeble minded guaranteed to come to no good with our tainted blood…you either succeed and become a good person or you don’t…it really is that simple…how much you have in the bank is not an indication of whether or not you are a good person or successful.

    • I’m not sure if your reading of my statistics is correct, but I think it is.

      Many people (and I think I’m among them) think that one of the really important advances in family law in the latter part of the 20th century was the recognition of the rights of illegitmate (now non-marital) children. For countless years/centuries children had been stigmatized and disadvantaged because their parents were not married. Of course the child had no say whatsoever in whether the parents were married.

      The recognition that non-marital children should be entitled to the same rights and opportunities as marital children was and is tremendously important. And part of the process of making that real was the diminuition of stigma. There was less shame in being a non-marital child or an unmarried mother.

      it seems to me it is perfectly predictable that if there is less shame attached to particular behavior it will become more common. And so it has.

      Is this problematic? What I find myself thinking is that if there is an unmarried couple that is ill-prepared to raise a child–either financially or emotionally–having them get married won’t really make them more prepared. If there’s inadquate housing before they get married, it won’t change just because they get married. If the parents don’t have resources available to support good parenting, getting married won’t suddenly give them those resources.

      Personally i’d much rather spend the effort on parent education or birth control or something more directly related to the problem than on encouraging marriage.

  2. I find “unmarried” to be very important. However, that’s because my concern is focused on the advantages we’ve built into our laws for married people. (look at how Utah treated an unmarried father in terms of adoption; look at Social Security survivor’s benefits, as well as how the retirement benefit for married people is calculated in the first place; inheritance laws; spousal support; spouse must approve 401K beneficiary change; Federal tax breaks) It’s unfair to deny these benefits to couples simply because they’re cohabitating rather than being married.

    Whatever the relationship status of the parents is, we do know the mothers are unmarried & this is a new occurrence. Seems reasonable to suggest that we update those laws that might, intentionally or unintentionally, be harming families simply because the parents aren’t married. (That Utah adoption case being a good example.)

    • Good point. There are places where there are still material advantages to having married vs. unmarried parents. One can take two approaches, I think. You could try to give the same benefits to unmarried parents–or to children of unmarried parents. Or you could try to move the unmarried parents into the “married parents” category. That’s what you’re suggesting, right?

      I just wrote something in part on this–and as soon as it is published I promise to link to it. It is actually difficult to eradicate all the disadvantage that goes with being a child of unmarried parents. But that’s not a reason we shouldn’t try.

  3. I went digging around family scholars for some posts that really upset me and instead I found this most horrific report that makes me want to cry. I trusted these people. Based on what this report suggests they are monsters. I’m gonna be sick.

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