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Every August since 2009 has seen a spate of news stories telling us the good news that the rate of nonmarital births has fallen. And so it has done, from a high of 51.8 births per 1,000 unmarried women in 2007–2008 to 44.8 in 2013. But during the same period, the ratio of nonmarital births—the percentage of live births that have been to single women—has been nearly flat, standing at 39.7% in 2007 and 40.6% percent 2013. You can see all the numbers in the National Center for Health Statistics’ monograph on the subject.
Is the glass half full or half empty? It depends on whether you are more interested in the amount of bad luck for newborns or the socialization of the next generation.
One of the most thoroughly documented relationships in social science is the statistical tendency for children born to unmarried women to get the worst of it on almost any social, economic, or health outcome you can think of, even after controlling for the mother’s education, income, and ethnicity. (Statistical tendency means true on average, not for every single child born to unmarried women.) That being the case, the reduction in the rate of nonmarital births is good news. Relative to the size of the population, fewer children are being born with bad luck. To put it more brutally, the average expected net suffering of newborns during their childhoods and, for that matter, throughout their life spans, has been going down over the last five years.
For the socialization of the next generation, the reduction in the rate is irrelevant. Only the ratio counts. Whatever the social deficits produced by nonmarital births may be, a cohort in which 40.6% of the children are born to unmarried women will exhibit the same population percentages whether the number of such births are 500,000 or 5,000,000.
Perhaps thinking of it in terms of the future of the two ethnic groups with the worst problems will drive the point home. From 2007 to 2012 (the ethnic data on rates for 2013 aren’t out yet), the rate for non-Latino blacks fell from 71 to 63, but the ratio was nearly flat (71.6% and 72.1%). Among Latinos, the rate fell from 102 to 73—a large drop by any standard—but the ratio rose from 51.3% to 53.2%. There is no way to interpret those numbers as optimistic for the prospects of the next generation of blacks and Latinos.
This doesn’t means non-Latino whites have much to cheer about. Their nonmarital birth rate from 2007–2012 fell only slightly, from 34 to 32, while the ratio rose from 27.8% to 29.3%. Asians continued to fare best among American ethnic groups, with the lowest rate (nearly flat at 24 and 23) and much the lowest ratio (nearly flat at 16.6% and 17.0%).
Is there any unequivocally good news in the latest numbers? Nonmarital births were increasingly likely to occur within cohabiting couples. From 2006–2010, the percentage of nonmarital births that had a man in the house rose from 41% to 58%. If American cohabitation bore much resemblance to a marriage, this would be good news. But to date, analyses that break down the outcomes for children born to unmarried women living alone and unmarried women living with a man (who may or may not be the biological father of the child) have not shown an advantage for the child born to cohabiting parents. But who knows? Maybe American cohabitation is becoming more like cohabitation in Scandinavia, where unmarried parents routinely stay together for decades. I don’t know of any data supporting that hope, but hope is as optimistic as I can get.
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