Why Are Unwed Women in U.S. Are Having Fewer Babies?


Brandy Zadrozny of The Daily Beast reports an interesting trend that most people will find a positive one. The rate of children born to single women has declined:

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the most recent upward trend, begun in 2002, seems to have reversed, in the steepest decline ever recorded, dropping 14 percent from its 2007 peak, to 44.8 per 1,000 women of childbearing age (15-44). The number of births to unwed mothers also dropped 7 percent, to approximately 1.6 million, from 2012 to 2013. Mostly women under 30 years old drove the declines. Hispanic and black women saw the biggest drops.

Zadrozny notes that the overall birth rate has fallen so it kinda/sorta makes sense that the rate for unwed women would also drop (though not necessarily, as different forces could be at work). Why are women having fewer kids, especially in the U.S. and the "developed world"? Scroll down for the basic answer. (Spoiler alert: Because they can.)

The whole article is worth reading and packed with some interesting charts, including this one, which shows that more kids born to unwed mothers are coming home to houses with two parents:

As Zadrozny writes, "Almost three in five births to unwed women are to women who are cohabitating with a partner. In 2002 and the years 2006-10, the percentage of children born to cohabiting parents rose from 41 percent to 58 percent."

Cohabitating households are not as stable as married ones, but they also have far more resources than true single-parent households. And Zadrozny links to a study showing that cohabitating fathers are as involved in child-rearing as married ones. She also quotes a researcher who argues:

"Four in 10 births are outside of marriage….That's not going to reverse in a big way. It hasn't gone down even as the nonmarital birth rates have. I think this is the family formation of the future and so there needs to be approaches to improving well-being in these types of families."

I think that's probably right: Family structures have always been subject to changes that can't be reeled back to whatever preferred golden-age you want. It's an interesting question to ask what are the best ways to adapt to new forms of social organization.

I reviewed Jonathan Last's interesting What to Expect When No One's Expecting, which charts a global decline in birth rates, for BookForum. The short answer for why women are having fewer babies: modernity. Read all about it.

And I talked about the unacknowledged constant change in family structure for Reason back in 1997. A snippet:

Anyone who even occasionally tunes into television and radio talk shows, skims a newspaper editorial page or an opinion magazine, or browses the nonfiction aisles at a bookstore is familiar with some variation on the following theme: "The family, in its old sense…is disappearing from our land, and not only our free institutions are threatened but the very existence of our society is endangered." This formulation of the problems facing "the family" is interesting for at least three reasons. First, as is often the case in such discussions, it invokes the family as a wholly self-evident, unitary phenomenon with no possible variation. Second, it captures the lure of traditional social arrangements and articulates the centrality of the family to society at large. Third, the statement is well over a century old, having originally appeared in an 1859 issue of the Boston Quarterly Review. That it sounds so current is worth pausing over.