Policy-makers and the public alike may be surprised by the findings of a new study on out-of-wedlock childbearing commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Thirty percent of births in the United States in 1993 were to unwed mothers--an almost eightfold increase since 1940--the report found. But the majority of these unmarried mothers were not teen-agers or minorities.
Sixty percent of births outside marriage in 1993 were to white women, and 70% were to women older than 20. (Still, because 72% of all teen-agers who have babies are unmarried, single motherhood remained disproportionately high for teen-agers.)
The steep rise in unwed childbearing is "not a teen problem, not a minority problem and not a poverty problem. We are looking at something society-wide. We have to think much bigger," said demographer Kristin A. Moore, author of the report's executive summary.
She said the findings also have important implications for the supposedly cherished institution of marriage. Women "are not really having more kids," Moore said. "They are having kids without getting married."
For many Americans, continued Moore, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Child Trends Inc., "Economic and social circumstances have made marriage less attractive, less necessary or less feasible."
The survey also showed that:
* Poorly educated and less affluent men are less likely to marry, but not necessarily less likely to have children. For men and women, higher wages, higher levels of education and better economic opportunities are related to lower rates of non-marital childbearing and higher levels of marriage.
* "Shotgun weddings" are a thing of the past. Today, unmarried couples experiencing a pregnancy are much less likely to marry than 25 or 30 years ago. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the proportion of non-marital conceptions in which the parents married before the child was born plummeted from 31% to 8% among African Americans, from 33% to 23% among Latinos, and from 61% to 34% among whites.
* The risk zone for unmarried pregnancies has expanded substantially over the past few decades as Americans marry later, divorce more frequently and are more likely to engage in non-marital sex. Among married women born between 1954 and 1963, 82% had sex before they were married, compared with 65% among women born a decade earlier.
* Unmarried women who are sexually active are less likely than married women to use contraceptives. Among sexually active women in 1988, 17% of never-married women and 11% of previously married women were not using contraception, compared with only 5% of currently married women.
* Welfare is not a significant contributor to recent increases in out-of-wedlock childbearing. Evidence linking welfare benefits with increases in non-marital births is inconsistent--and when a link is found, it tends to be small.
The latter conclusion sheds new perspective on efforts to cut federal welfare benefits, Moore pointed out.
"There is a pretty widespread belief that changing welfare will have an impact on fertility," she said. "I don't think it's likely to have an impact at all."
So sweeping are the report's findings that Stephanie J. Ventura, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics, said it is impossible to identify "a single bullet answer to this broad societal issue."
The wide variety of Americans affected by the changing patterns in marriage and childbearing make it "hard to know where to put the limited resources that we have," Ventura said. But clearly, "We need to have targeted resources--different interventions for different groups."
The report did reaffirm data suggesting that out-of-wedlock childbearing has negative consequences for children, mothers and taxpayers. Low-birth-weight babies are more common among unmarried women, who also tend to obtain less prenatal care. Young children in single-mother families score lower on verbal and math achievement tests. In mid-childhood, children in mother-only households continue to have lower grades, more behavioral problems, and higher rates of chronic health and psychiatric disorders.
Adolescents and young adults raised in single-mother families are themselves at greater risk of teen pregnancy and childbearing, the report found. This population also has elevated school-dropout rates, incarceration and unemployment.
The report evolved from a request for data on unwed childbearing that was written into the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). Statistics from dozens of federal agencies and academic sources were analyzed by a panel of experts from a variety of fields.