Contrary to Popular View, Birth Rates Increased Among Unmarried Women in their Twenties

Washington, DC – Recent statements applauding the stabilization of the out-of-wedlock birth rate, sometimes credited to welfare reform, have not looked at the whole picture. While the overall rate of nonmarital childbearing has stabilized, a recent examination of the numbers shows offsetting trends by age. Between 1996 and 2000, the nonmarital birth rate declined for teens, but actually increased for women in their twenties.

Women aged 20-29 account for 56% of the 1.3 million nonmarital births in the U.S. The nonmarital birth rate for women aged 20-24 rose from 70.7 per 1,000 births in 1996 to 74.5 in 2000. It rose for women aged 25-29 from 56.8 in 1996 to 62.2 in 2000. However, the nonmarital teen birth rate fell from 42.9 per 1000 births in 1996 to 39.6 in 2000, continuing the decline in the teen birth rate which began in 1991. Overall, the rate changed only slightly, from 44.8 in 1996 to 45.2 in 2000, among unmarried women aged 15-44. (See attached tables for details.)

“Reducing out-of-wedlock births was one of the goals of welfare reform. But so far, that has not occurred among unmarried women in their twenties, who account for more than half of all nonmarital births in the U.S.,” said Dr. Kristin Moore, Child Trends President and Senior Scholar. “Nonmarital births increase the risk of dependency and are related to poorer development for children, so reducing them would be a positive social trend.”

Another measure of nonmarital childbearing is the proportion of all births in the country that occur to unmarried women. Using this measure, the incidence of nonmarital childbearing actually rose slightly among both teens (76 percent in 1996 to 79 percent in 2000) and women in their early twenties (46 percent to 50 percent in the same time period). Overall, one in three births in the U.S. occurs outside marriage.

“While many nonmarital births occur to cohabiting couples who live together without getting married, a number of studies find cohabiting relationships to be less durable and healthy than married relationships,” continued Moore. “More research needs to be done on these couples and on their children’s well-being.”

Child Trends, founded in 1979, is an independent, nonpartisan research center dedicated to improving the lives of children and families by conducting research and providing science-based information to the public and decision-makers. Data on nonmarital childbearing are from the National Center for Health Statistics.