Sorting Through the Data on Nonmarital Births

BlogFeb 22 2012

Here at Child Trends, we spend a lot of time analyzing  trends in childbearing, including childbearing within and outside of marriage.  You may have read one of our key findings in the New York Times, that for women under the age of 30, most births now occur outside of marriage.

This statistic has drawn quite a lot of attention, from across the political spectrum. Some are focusing on the wide discrepancies in births outside of marriage by women’s education level; others are focused on what the statistic may mean for the institutions of marriage and family, while others are worried about the impact on children.

Child Trends analyzed 20 years of Federally-collected birth certificate data from the National Vital Statistics System, and we found that the percent of all births to women under age 30 that occur outside of marriage:

  • Varies significantly from state to state. The percent of all births to women under age 30 that occurs outside of marriage ranges from 24 percent in Utah to 64 percent in Mississippi.
  • Exceeds 60 percent in six states. The percent of births to women under age 30 that occurs outside of marriage is over 60 percent in six states: Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Rhode Island.
  • Increased in every state over the past decade.Every state saw an overall increase in the percent of all births occurring to unmarried women between 2000 and 2009.
    • The largest increases were:
      • Texas – 39% increase
      • Vermont – 34% increase
      • West Virginia – 38% increase
      • Kentucky – 32% increase
  • The smallest increase was in Colorado with a 1.2% increase.

This trend is not just among young women. Nonmarital births have been on the rise among all women in the United States over the past several decades, in part because of the increasing percentage of couples who have a birth within cohabiting relationships.

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.