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Unmarried Women Boost Record ’07 U.S. Birthrate

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There was a great flurry of news last week about an increase for the second consecutive year in teen births.

There was a great flurry of news last week about an increase for the second consecutive year in teen births. This is notable because the teen birth rate had been consistently declining in the U.S. for the previous 14 years, marking a 33% decline from 1991 to 2005. They have increased 5% between 2005 and 2007.

This new data from the National Center for Health Statistics — a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services — gives important insight into how children are being born into our nation’s communities.

Good News: 2007 saw the highest number of annual births ever in the United States, surpassing the peak of the postwar “baby boom” in 1957. And 2007 marks the second consecutive year in which the total fertility rate (TFR) has been above the replacement level since 1971.The TFR is the rate at which a given generation can exactly replace itself, generally considered 2,100 births per 1,000 women. Births rose for all races, ranging just less than 1% for white women to 6% for Asian and Pacific Islanders. Demographers have referred to last few years of U.S. fertility as a growing “baby boomlet.” (More people for us to help them raise their children!)

Bad News: The greatest increases in births have been among unmarried women of all childbearing ages. The report explains, “All measures of childbearing by unmarried women rose to historic levels in 2007, with the number of births, birth rate, and proportion of births to unmarried women increasing 3 to 5 percent.” Brad E. Hamilton, et al., “Births: Preliminary Data for 2007,” National Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 57, No. 12, (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Heath Statistics, March 2009), p. 1. The 2007 total number of births to unmarried women is up 26 percent from 2002 when the recent steep increases began. The unmarried birth rate stayed relatively stable at a high level over the 1990s after dramatic increases from 1970.

An important note is that the largest increase in nonmarital births in 2007 were for women 25-39 years of age, a total increase of 6 percent or more for 2006-2007, what we have typically seen as the more “settled-down” years. A Cornell University demographer indicates that a “good portion” of these births are to unmarried cohabitors, which has seen more than a 1,000 percent increase since 1970, currently making up nearly 10 percent of all couples. David Popenoe and Barbara Whitehead, The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America, 2007 (New Brunswick, NJ: The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, 2007), p. 19.


Percentage of All U.S. Births to Unmarried Mothers by Age

Age of Mother

2007

2006

All Ages – Unmarried

39.7

38.5

15-17 years

92.8

91.9

18-19 years

82.1

80.6

20-24 years

59.5

57.9

25-29 years

32.2

31.0

30-34 years

19.3

18.3

35-39 years

17.3

16.4

40-54 years

19.9

19.4











Analysis:

A) Why the recent increase in teen child-bearing?

The best scholars have more questions than answers on why teen child-bearing has increased slightly in the last two years. Most puzzle whether this is the start of a trend, or merely a statistical blip. Child Trends, a leading research organization on child well-being, reports that some of this recent increase could be due to a number of factors.

1) Population and Immigration: Changes in the composition in teen populations can dramatically affect overall teen birth rates, particularly with recent increases in the Hispanic teen populations which have substantially higher overall teen pregnancy and birth rates compared with blacks and whites. Immigration of high-fertility teens have increased. However, such factors would account for only a quarter of this increase.

2) Declining Contraceptive Use: There were very slight decreases in high school girls indicating no use of any birth control at last sexual experience, so it is unlikely this had a significant role in the 2006 increase and no data is available on its influence on the 2007 increase, so no one knows if this was a factor.

3) Abortion: Abortion among all women, including teens, has been declining steadily to their lowest levels in decades up to 2004, the last year for which data is available. More women may be choosing to keep their babies.

Other scholars have suggested…

4) Following Big Sis: With the recent increases in unmarried births among 20- and 30-something women, teens could be doing what teens do: emulate and follow the behavior of their older siblings. (Glenn Stanton believes there is meat to this.)

5) Following Stars: Celebrities having babies before getting married have the effect of normalizing such behavior, however, starlets have been having unmarried births for decades, even while the teen birth rate was declining.

B) Why the increases among 20-, 30- and 40-something women?

The primary reasons for the increase in births to unmarried women are two-fold.

1) Cohabitation has increased as a more permanent domestic setting, even while the relationships themselves are documented as significantly unstable. It is not just for transitional college students any more.

2) Ticking Clocks: These women see their biological clocks ticking faster than the arrival of their marital opportunities and expectations. This is primarily due to a dramatic decrease in marriageable men, at least measured against the expectations of these women. Therefore, they are increasingly putting motherhood before marriage out of sheer desperation.

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