Feb 18 / Simcha

The New American Family Structure

NCH Statistics: 1970-2009 (Click image to view graph enlarged)

Adapted from For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage by J. DeParle and S. Tavernise (New York Times, 2.17.2012)

“It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.”

These words open a recent article in the New York Times, detailing the fast growth of motherhood without marriage — once largely limited to poor women and minorities — in white, middle America.

According to Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzes government data, a third of Americans were born outside marriage in the mid-1990s. Now the figure is 41 percent — and 53 percent for children born to women under 30.  The researchers note that:

  • The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree.
  • College graduates tend to resist this trend; about 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 62 percent of women with some post-secondary schooling and 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less.
  • Large racial differences still do remain: 73 percent of black children are born outside marriage, compared with 53 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of whites.

These shifts are turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education.  And the transforming picture of family life in America is affecting children’s lives. Researchers have consistently found that children born outside marriage face elevated risks of falling into poverty, failing in school or suffering emotional and behavioral problems.

In a summary of research, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, report that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.  Reviewing the academic literature, Susan L. Brown of Bowling Green State University recently found that children born to married couples, on average, “experience better education, social, cognitive and behavioral outcomes.”

Given these statistics and studies, it is surprising (and disappointing) that so many governmental representatives are more concerned with limiting access to contraceptives than with keeping young people in school, improving sex education, and providing easy access to family planning.