New Report Tracks Trends and Patterns in Non-Marital Births

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50-year rise in births to unmarried women levels off during the 1990s

A new report from CDC's National Center for Health Statistics provides a comprehensive analysis of the trends and patterns in nonmarital childbearing from 1940 to the present. Based on data from birth certificates reported to NCHS through the National Vital Statistics System, the report describes the level of unmarried childbearing over the past 60 years, by such characteristics as age, race, and ethnicity of the mother.

The report also examines many related factors including changes in marriage patterns, sexual activity, contraceptive use, and abortion. "Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, 1940-99" is intended for those who need to understand the short- and long-term trends in unmarried childbearing as well as some of the demographic, population, reproductive, and behavioral shifts that have affected these trends.

Key highlights of the report show:

After rising dramatically during the half century from 1940 to 1990, out-of-wedlock childbearing leveled off, or slowed its rate of increase, during the 1990's. Since 1994, the percent of births to unmarried women has remained stable at about 33 percent. The birth rate for unmarried women increased from 43.8 per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15-44 years to 46.9 between 1990 and 1994 and then declined by 1999.

The number of births to unmarried women reached an annual total of 1.3 million in 1999, increasing by a little over 1 percent annually during the 1990's as compared with an average annual increase of about 6 percent during the 1980's.

Fewer than 3 in 10 nonmarital births are to teenagers, but the majority of teen births are out-of-wedlock. Ages 20-29 are the peak childbearing years, and women in their twenties account for over half of all nonmarital births. The number of births to unmarried teens was 2 percent lower in 1999 than in 1998.

The decade of the 1990's contrasts sharply with the 50 or so preceding years. The numbers of nonmarital births rose 13 fold between 1940 and 1994. The birth rate for unmarried women increased more than 6 times from 1940 to 1990. Two key factors contributed to the rising number of nonmarital births from 1940 to 1990: the increased birth rate for unmarried women and the steep increases in the number of unmarried women.

Nonmarital birth rates differ considerably by race and Hispanic origin. Rates for unmarried black women have historically been higher than for white women, but the disparity has narrowed in recent years. The rate for black women was 7 times that for white women in 1970 but, by 1998, this differential was just under 2. The rate for unmarried Hispanic woman is the highest for any race/ethnicity group, consistent with the overall higher birth rate for Hispanic women.

Drawing upon national surveys, the report includes data on patterns of marriage, living arrangements, and contraception use.

A key change in marital status patterns has been the large increase in cohabitation among unmarried couples. In 1980-84, 29 percent of out-of-wedlock births were to cohabiting couples; 10 years later this proportion increased to 39 percent. This group accounts for most of the increase in births to unmarried women since the early 1980's.

As more couples cohabited, fewer married or married later and this trend, coupled with the baby boom population surge, caused an increase in the number of unmarried women of childbearing age.

Contraceptive use may also have contributed to the downturn in nonmarital births, with a greater proportion of unmarried women using contraception in the 1990's as compared with the decade before. The latest survey results showed that women were more likely to use condoms and long-acting methods. About one quarter of unmarried women relied on sterilization, primarily tubal ligation.

An international comparison of nonmarital childbearing presented in the report, shows that the United States has not been alone, nor has it outpaced other countries, in the long increase in unmarried childbearing to its current levels. In 1998 half or more of births in Norway and Sweden were out of wedlock, compared with one third in the United States. Other industrialized countries with higher proportions of nonmarital births were Denmark, France, and the United Kingdom. However, levels in the U.S. are much higher than in some industrialized countries, such as Germany, Italy, Greece, and Japan, where less than 15 percent of births are out of wedlock.

"Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, 1940-99," National Vital Statistics Reports Vol. 48, No. 16, October 18, 2000, by Stephanie J. Ventura, NCHS and Christine A. Bachrach, National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health is available from NCHS by calling (301) 458-4636. It can be viewed and downloaded without charge from the NCHS/CDC Web site. For more information contact the NCHS/CDC public affairs office at (301) 458-4800.
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