For Some American Women, It’s Become the Norm to Have Babies Without Being Married

Women who don’t complete college are much more likely to have a child outside of wedlock than those who hold a bachelor’s degree

Photo: altrendo images/68/Ocean/Corbis

At one point in American history, having a child out of wedlock was considered a crime. But, today, it's becoming the norm. In fact, for young mothers with a high school education, or less, having a baby outside of marriage is more common than following the traditional timeline of marriage, then children.

Researchers have known for some time that birth rates outside of marriage are on the rise, although those figures have varied slightly depending on the year, the dataset and the group of mothers the research focused on. According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the number of babies born to unmarried women (between age 15 and 50) has been steadily increasing since the 1940s. 

Last year, The New York Times reported that "maternity is often decoupled from matrimony: 40 percent of women with some college but no degree, and 57 percent of women with high school diplomas or less, are unmarried when they give birth to their first child."

Among young mothers, though, those numbers are higher still. As the Atlantic reportsa 15-year survey by the Population Association of America followed a cohort of young women born between 1981 and 1985 and found that, when those women were 26 to 31, 87 percent of the young mothers who did not complete high school had their baby outside of marriage. Among the mothers who completed high school, 71 percent became mothers without being married, as did 67 percent who took some college classes but did not graduate.

These percentages are pretty astronomical. But they apply only to certain groups of women. On a national level, unmarried women represent 35.7 percent of births—and overall, the "nonmarital birth rate" for women 15 to 44 was down 1 percent in 2013, according to the CDC. Both the total number and percenatage of "births to unmarried women" also declined.

There's a simple explanation for this discrepency, as the American Community Survey Report, which analyzed data from 2011 only, explains: 

Births to women with less than a high school degree constituted the smallest number of total births by educational group out of the national total, [but] these women had the largest percentage unmarried (57.0 percent) compared with the other education groups.

The report goes on to say that just 8.8 percent of women who held a bachelor's degree or higher had a baby when they weren't married. The multi-year Population Association of America's more recent analysis, on the other hand, put that figure higher, at 29 percent. But that's still much lower than the figures reported for the millennials who didn't complete college. As the Atlantic explains, a whole range of factors account for this difference, including poverty, changing perceptions about marriage and motherhood and a lack of available men for certain cohorts of women. 

So while it's true that birth rates outside of wedlock are on the rise, for some groups they're still far from the norm. As the Population Association of America researchers told the Atlantic, "There are two clear paths through adulthood—one for people who have a bachelor's degree and one for people who don't."

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