What a sad milestone:
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…The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzed government data.
Among mothers of all ages, a majority — 59 percent in 2009 — are married when they have children. But the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.
One group still largely resists the trend: college graduates, who overwhelmingly marry before having children. That is turning family structure into a new class divide…
What’s going on here? In this day of multiple choices for effective birth control, it’s clear that people are either being incredibly negligent about using it, or are purposely having these children. What’s more, whatever your stand on abortion, it’s apparent that a lot of people are foregoing that too, for whatever reason.
The fact that illegitimate births are still in the minority overall probably reflects the fact that a higher percentage of first pregnancies are now occurring in the over-30 group than used to be the case, especially in the well-educated. These women and men are postponing childbearing because birth control improvements allow them to do so effectively if it suits them—and it does suit this particular group, more and more, because both women and men are solidifying careers beforehand.
There’s little doubt in my mind that part of the trend towards more illegitimacy in the under-30 crowd is that it no longer has much social stigma at all. When I was growing up it was almost never done, except among the very poor, and even then the woman was looked down on. It was far more common to either give the baby up for adoption or to have a shotgun wedding (I knew of quite a few of the latter, some of which have lasted to this day).
Still another factor is something that you can easily see if you peruse blogs about the relationships between young men and women: the pluses of marriage have become less and less evident for both sexes, but most particularly for men (see this, this, and this for some heated discussions of the subject on this blog alone). The economics for women have changed a lot, too; as the Times piece points out, women no longer are in as much need of men economically.
Meanwhile, the high divorce rate has made young people wary and cynical:
Most of my friends say it’s just a piece of paper, and it doesn’t work out anyway.
Unwed motherhood is more common in all age groups, races, and classes than it was when I was growing up. But by far the greatest increases have occurred in three groups: non-whites, non-college graduates, and couples who live together.
The Times article briefly mentions this, but the more detailed data is startling. The good news (and really, the only good news) is that teen unwed births have declined in recent years, especially as a percentage of all unwed births. The bad news is the skyrocketing rates in the 20-somethings, and in fact in all age groups except teens (see Figure 2 at the previous link), and especially among blacks and Hispanics (see Figure 3). And although we’ve heard a lot about the illegitimate birth rate in blacks (a staggering 72%), it seems that Hispanics actually have the highest rates of all as a group.
All of this bodes very poorly for children in particular and for society as a whole. And it’s hard to see what would realistically happen to reverse the trend in a major way. Can Humpty Dumpty ever be put back together again?