An increasing number of teenage males think having children outside marriage is "OK," a federal study says.
This shift in boys' attitudes is alarming because it likely will lead to more births out of wedlock in the U.S. - a vital statistic that just reached a historic high of 41 percent.
One of the great success stories of the past decade was the decline in teenage pregnancies and births, said Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
"Many of us are worried that that success story is unraveling," he said.
In its new study on teen sexuality, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) compared data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth with the same poll, taken in 2006-08.
It found that many teen behaviors had plateaued - for instance, about the same portion of teens (42 percent) had ever had sexual intercourse, and about the same used contraception at first sex (80 percent).
But there was a sharp increase in the male teens' attitudes about having a baby out of wedlock.
In 2002, barely half of the young men agreed that "it's OK for an unmarried female to have a child." By the 2006-08 survey, though, 64 percent of young men gave their approval.
The NCHS study further noted that when teens were asked why they had not had sex yet, the number of males who said because they didn't "want to get [a female] pregnant" fell by half, from 25 percent to 12 percent.
These kinds of replies show that there's a "cavalier attitude" out there about getting pregnant and having babies among young people, Mr. Albert said.
"There used to be a social script" that said young people should get educated, get married and have children, in that order, he said. Now, the script has "become an a la carte menu."
The increasing acceptance of cohabiting among youth may very well be leading to greater acceptance of unwed childbearing, said Mindy E. Scott, research scientist at Child Trends Inc.
Still, there's strong evidence that "most young people think about marriage and want to get married," she said.
Many culture-watchers are warning that the United States is splitting along educational and marriage lines: People who are high school dropouts or have only a high school diploma are more likely to skip marriage, have children and live in poverty, while those with college degrees are likely to marry first, then have babies and raise them with higher incomes.
In fact, according to federal data from 2006, among women who are high school dropouts, 67 percent of their births are out of wedlock. In contrast, just 8 percent of births to women who are college graduates are out of wedlock, said Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
This is why failing to teach people that marriage is important is "an absolute disaster," he said. "Having a married husband is the No. 1 anti-poverty weapon in the United States."
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