Unwed Birth Rate

From 2002 to 2012, the percentage of children born outside of marriage has grown by 6.7 percentage points.

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The Crisis of Nonmarital Childbearing

By Ron Haskins

Nonmarital childbearing is one of the preeminent reasons this nation, despite spending about $1 trillion a year on programs for disadvantaged families, is struggling to reduce poverty and increase economic mobility.

Most children born outside marriage grow up in a female-headed family. Consequently, these families face two distinct disadvantages. First, the poverty rate among children in female-headed families is at least four times as great as the poverty rate among children in married-couple families. Second, there is a vast and growing body of research demonstrating that a family composed of a married husband and wife is the ideal environment in which to raise a child.

Controlling for other differences, children in female-headed families are more likely on average to enter school behind their peers in math, reading readiness, and socio-emotional skills — a gap our schools are often unable to close. As a result, these students are less likely to graduate from high school and less likely to enter, and graduate from, college.[1]

Children from female-headed families are also more likely on average to be arrested and more likely on average to become unmarried parents in their teen years or in their twenties or thirties, thereby creating a cyclical effect that pushes nonmarital birth rates ever higher. And all of these factors contribute to a higher probability that, as adults, these children will live in poverty while struggling to ascend America’s economic ladder.[2]

Given these facts, it seems likely that the nation’s young people would try to avoid having babies until they are older, employed, and married. But analyzing trends across the five decennial censuses since 1970 shows that the marriage rate is falling, while nonmarital childbearing rates continue to rise. Between 1970 and 2010, marriage rates for whites, blacks, and Hispanics all fell by over 20 percent; is it any surprise then that over 40 percent of American babies are now born outside marriage?

The rising nonmarital birth rate creates poverty and destroys economic opportunity — for both current and future generations. For the past four decades, marriage rates have been declining, triggering an explosion in the nonmarital birth rate. Unless these trends are reversed, this nation will continue to have limited success in reducing poverty and promoting opportunity.

— Ron Haskins is a Senior Fellow and co-Director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution and former Senior Advisor to the President for Welfare Policy.

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