Out-of-Wedlock Births Hit Record High

Jessica Ravitz, CNN, April 8, 2009

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Along with magazine-cover grabbers like Angelina Jolie and Bristol Palin, Hoffman, today a 39-year-old mother of three, is part of a now record-breaking trend of women who give birth outside of wedlock.

Nearly 40 percent of babies born in the United States in 2007 were delivered by unwed mothers, according to data released last month by the National Center for Health Statistics. The 1.7 million out-of-wedlock births, of 4.3 million total births, marked a more than 25 percent jump from five years before.

Statistics such as these, which include for the second year in a row a bump in teen pregnancies, after a 14-year decline, leave Sarah Brown concerned. She worries about the children born to unwed parents–about the disadvantages they often face, including increased likelihood of poverty and greater high school dropout rates. See the number of out-of-wedlock births by race and age ยป

“I wish people spent as much time planning when to get pregnant, with whom, under what circumstances as they do planning their next vacation,” said Brown, the CEO and founding director of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “The stigma [of out-of-wedlock births] has eroded, and these numbers made me feel perhaps it’s disappeared altogether.”

That stigma Brown speaks of, however, isn’t one that LaShanda Henry, 28, or the women in her family before her, would have known. Her parents never married. And her grandmother only had a wedding when she was in her 60s.

So when Henry, of Greenville, North Carolina, and her boyfriend of now five years, Jean Paul, had Christopher two years ago, there was no pressure to race down the aisle.

“Culturally speaking” taking vows wasn’t expected, said Henry, who runs the Black Moms Club, an online social network, and the Web-only Mahogany Momma Magazine. “Do we want to spend that money on a wedding or a house? . . . I guess it’s about priorities. I was never one of those girls that dreamed about the wedding dress.”

What she said about cultural differences and expectations might help explain some of the numbers. Other data released last month showed the percentage of unwed mothers differs from race to race. While 28 percent of white women gave birth out of wedlock in 2007, nearly 72 percent of black women and more than 51 percent of Latinas did.

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Henry’s experience also echoes what Paula England, a Stanford University sociology professor, learned when she co-edited “Unmarried Couples with Children,” which was published in 2007. That book traced for four years 50 unmarried couples, the majority of them black or Latino, that had babies in 2000, and the findings shot down some of her predictions.

England assumed many of the fathers would have high-tailed it out of the picture by the sixth month of pregnancy, leaving single mothers “truly single,” the sociologist said. Instead, she found that in 80 percent of the non-marital births, parents stayed romantically involved and in 50 percent of the cases they were living together.

Still, the bulk of responsibility often falls to the mother. According to a 2008 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 9.8 million single mothers versus 1.8 million single fathers.

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