The XX Factor

Surprise! Unwed Birth Rates Are Going Down.

The number of babies born whose parents haven’t made it legal yet is in decline. Photo: Paris, 2013. 

Photo by ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Claire Cain Miller at the New York Times has some bad news for those who enjoy blaming unwed mothers for everything from gun violence to poverty: The birth rate for unmarried women has actually gone down 14 percent since its peak in 2008. “The recent declines were sharpest among teenagers; black and Hispanic women; and those without a college degree — all of whom have typically had the highest rates of single motherhood — according to data from the Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics,” Miller writes. The only group whose unwed birthrates are going up? College-educated women over 35, though they are such a small percentage of unwed mothers that their impact on overall numbers is slight. 

The rise in women without wedding rings having babies—about 40 percent of babies born in the United States have unmarried mothers—creates alarm in conservative circles, in no small part because a lot of people conflate “unwed” and “single.” “Some researchers and marriage advocates say the prevalence of single-parent families could have long-term negative effects,” Miller writes. “These families are more likely than two-parent ones to live in poverty.”

However, a full 58 percent of unwed mothers of newborns are living with the fathers of their children. Many of them will marry, and many of the married mothers will divorce and become single mothers. What these kinds of statistics show is not the end of fatherhood, but that people’s approach to marriage and parenthood is becoming more complex and individualized. 

But just because the unwed birth rate is going down doesn’t mean that the panic over single motherhood is likely to recede. The majority of Americans believe crime is getting worse, but crime is actually way down since the ’90s. Most Americans also believe teen pregnancy is on the rise, when in fact it’s in a sharp decline. So we’ll probably continue to hear about how single mothers are responsible for every social ill imaginable.