Behind the Sharp Declines in Births Outside of Marriage

Nonmarital birth rates are going down. A new report by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) shows that between 2007 and 2013, the nonmarital birth rate—which measures the number of births that occur in any one year to unmarried women (per 1,000)—declined 14 percent, from its peak of 51.8 to 44.8. This marks a dramatic shift after decades of steady increases. Notably, the declines are particularly steep among some of the most vulnerable populations, teenagers and minority women.

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Figure 1 from NCHS Brief

Teens aged 15-17 saw a 30 percent decline in the nonmarital birth rate while those aged 18-19 saw a 26 percent decline. Currently, only 15 percent of all nonmarital births occur to teens. This is remarkable when one considers than in 1970, births to teens aged 15-19 accounted for almost half of all nonmarital births. This is great news and highlights the real gains that teens have made—a group in which the federal government and states have invested many resources. These declines have been linked to delays in sexual activity, increased contraceptive use, and more effective pregnancy prevention programs.

Women in their 20s and early 30s also experienced declines in nonmarital birth rates—although to a smaller degree than teens.  Notably, women in their 20s have both the highest rate and highest number or nonmarital births. In 2009, 62 percent of all nonmarital births occurred to women aged 20-29.

However, women in their 30s are beginning to catch up. For the first time ever, nonmarital birth rates are higher among women aged 30-34 than those aged 18-19. In fact, in contrast to the declines in nonmarital birth rates most women experienced, the NCHS report finds that women aged 35 and older actually experienced increases in nonmarital birth rates over the past 5 years.

Another striking find from the report is that 58 percent of nonmarital births occur within cohabiting unions—a dramatic increase from just 10 years ago. To some extent, this is positive news as these children are actually being born to two-parent families, and recent research finds that levels of father involvement are high in cohabiting relationships. However, cohabiting unions do tend to be less stable over time than marital unions, meaning children are more likely to see their parents’ union end.

Even with these declines in nonmarital birth rates, it is unlikely that nonmarital childbearing is going away. In fact, four in ten births in the U.S. continue to occur to unmarried women—and more than half of all births to women under 30 are to unmarried women. To best support children and their families, efforts should be made to support stable relationships for a variety of family types. In doing this, it is important to remember that many of these nonmarital births—even those to cohabiting couples—are unintended (43 percent in 2010). This highlights the need to continue scaling up pregnancy prevention programs for teens, as well as developing and scaling up programs to prevent unintended pregnancy for couples in their twenties, and increasingly their 30s.