In nearly all developed countries the proportion of infants that are born to women who are not married increased dramatically in the last decades of the twentieth century. In most cases this is true across all age groups of childbearing women. Behind these trends, however, there are substantial differences in patterns of nonmarital fertility and in the implications for children born to these women. Some of the important dimensions of interest include whether or not the parents of the child are cohabitating at the time of the birth and whether nonmarital childbearing is concentrated among teenagers or those with less education or particular ethnic or other groups in the population.
National Patterns of Nonmarital Fertility
As of 1998 the Scandinavian countries had the highest proportion of births to nonmarried mothers–over half of all births in Sweden and more than 60 percent in Iceland (see Figure 1). The proportion in the United States was approximately one-third, just below the United Kingdom and just above Canada. Southern European countries tend to have low rates: in Italy and Greece, for example, less than 10 percent of births were nonmarital. Japan stands out with its nearly zero rate.
The large majority of nonmarital births in Scandinavian countries are to cohabitating couples. Cohabitation and nonmarital rates generally go hand in hand. However there are exceptions such as Britain, with higher levels of nonmarital childbearing than cohabitation, and the Netherlands and Germany, with high levels of cohabitation and low rates of nonmarital births. In the United States less than half the births to unwed mothers are to cohabitating couples, but this proportion has been increasing.
Nonmarital Fertility in the United States
In the early 1970s about one-half of nonmarital births in the United States were to teenagers but by the mid-1990s, more than two-thirds were to women aged 20 and older. Figure 2 shows the trends in rates over time. The big increase from 1970 onward is in the rates for women 20 to 24; the rates for women 25 to 29 (not shown) have also risen but not by as much. Accompanying this trend has been a rise in the proportion of nonmarital births that are second or higher-order births. By the end of the period these made up one-half of all nonmarital births; indeed about one-quarter of all nonmarital births were third or higher-order births.
In the United States, patterns of nonmarital fertility differ by race. In the mid-1990s about one-third of first births were outside marriage; among blacks this proportion was more than 80 percent. The nonmarital birth rates for Hispanics are even higher than those for blacks. The biggest increases in rates since the mid-1970s have been among white women and this has narrowed the differences between blacks and whites. Since 1995 the rates for non-Hispanic white women have been stable while the rates for black women have continued to decrease.
In the late 1990s, the mean age at first nonmarital birth was approximately 21 for both black and white women. The probability of having a second nonmarital birth varies by race. Among black women who had a first nonmarital birth, more than 60 percent have a second nonmarital birth; among white women the corresponding percentage is 35 to 38 percent. Altogether, in 1999, for white women nonmarital births accounted for 27 percent of all their births; for black women, 69 percent; and for Hispanic women, 42 percent.
Rates differ across states or districts and cities within the United States: as of 1999, Washington, DC, had the highest proportion of nonmarital births, at 62 percent. Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico also have rates far above the national average which, as is shown in Figure 1, was 33 percent. Utah has the lowest rate, 17 percent. Most of these differences are thought to reflect the racial/ethnic composition of the populations of these areas.
Economic and Demographic Causes of Nonmarital Childbearing
Various explanations for these patterns have been proposed, some emphasized by demographers, others by economists. According to demographers (see Ventura and Bachrach 2000), the factors underlying the U.S. trends, for example, are an increase in age at marriage, which increases the pool of women able to have nonmarital births; a decline in the birth rate among married women; and an increase in the rate of births among unmarried women of all ages. The fact that nonmarital birth rates and the proportion of births that are nonmarital have increased in most developed countries has led demographers such as Larry Bumpass to argue that these trends reflect social
forces such as increased rates of labor force participation of women, high levels of sex outside of marriage, and high rates of divorce. According to economists, on the other hand, factors that lead a woman to have a child out of wedlock include a low probability of finding an attractive partner (that is, eligible men with good earnings prospects are scarce); the ability to provide for oneself or draw on support from social service programs; the minimal stigma attaching to such behavior–for example, if the woman's mother had had a nonmarital birth or if the behavior was prevalent in the community; high rates of divorce; and the high costs of contraception or avoiding a pregnancy. These factors are linked to characteristics, such as individual schooling, that increase the ability to provide for oneself. Upchurch, Lillard, and Panis, in their work of 2002, go beyond these models and focus on the effects of life course events such as education, marriage, divorce, and childbearing within marriage. They find, for example, that school attendance itself is likely to reduce nonmarital childbearing, perhaps because it raises the value of time, or perhaps because those in school have better access to contraceptives.
Trends in Nonmarital Childbearing
It is clear that the general trend over recent decades has been toward an increasing proportion of nonmarital births in nearly all developed countries. A far greater proportion of nonmarital births take place in cohabitating unions. A far greater proportion are to women in the working and middle classes. Nonmarital childbearing is clearly much more mainstream than a few decades ago.
Upchurch, Dawn, Lee Lillard, and Constantijn Panis. "Nonmarital Childbearing: Influences of
Education, Marriage and Fertility." Demography 39(2): 311–329.
Ventura, Stephanie J., and Christine A. Bachrach. 2000. "Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, 1940–99." National Vital Statistics Reports 48(16).
Wu, Larry, Larry Bumpass, and Kelly Musick. 2001. "Historical and Life Course Trajectories of Nonmarital Childbearing." In Out of Wedlock: Causes and Consequences of Nonmarital Fertility, ed. Larry Wu and Barbara L. Wolfe. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Child Trends Facts at a Glance. August 2001. <http://www.childtrends.org/PDF/FAAG2001.pdf>.
Barbara L. Wolfe