Unwed mothers suffer long-term health woes, study finds

Being an unwed mother can be tough — on women’s emotions, on their finances and, research shows, on their health.

A new study published Thursday in the American Sociological Review shows that the negative health consequences for women who give birth out of wedlock can be long lasting — and are unlikely to go away when those women marry later in life.

Lead author Kristi Williams, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, looked at data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which followed nearly 13,000 men and women born between 1957 and 1965. Participants in the survey have been interviewed regularly over a course of about 30 years.

Among other questions, the survey asked participants to rate their health as excellent, very good, good, fair or poor. Williams and her team looked at women’s self-reported health at age 40. In general — and particularly among whites and blacks — women who were unmarried when they had their first child reported worse health at age 40 than women who were married when they had their first baby. (Hispanics did not seem to have the same health troubles. This may be because they’re more likely to be in marriagelike relationships and have strong family networks to help cope with parenthood, the authors said.)


“Research has clearly shown the toll that long-term stress takes on health, and we know that single mothers have a great deal of stress in their lives,” Williams said in a statement. “Their economic problems only add to the problem.”

The researchers also found that later marriage did not generally help reverse the negative health consequences of having a first birth outside of marriage, unless you’re white or Hispanic and you marry the father of the child. Black women did not seem to get health benefits from marrying the father of the child.

“It is a tall order to expect that marriage can counteract the cumulative strains of unwed motherhood and their eventual negative impact on health,” Williams said.

The authors suggested that an impending boom in the population of aging unwed nothers — 40% of births in the U.S. occur to unmarried women — poses a public health threat. “If the strains of single motherhood lead to poor health, the increasing prevalence of nonmarital births in the United States represents a substantial public health threat that has been largely ignored,” they wrote.

They also said that their conclusions cast doubt on the value of government efforts to promote marriage among low-income single mothers.