- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 23, 2002

Earlier this month, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson released a new study with some very good news. For the 10th consecutive year, birthrates among teenagers declined, reaching what the report called "another record low."

In 2001 alone, the teen birthrate fell 5 percent, reaching 45.9 (per 100,000 female teen-agers of all races). Since 1991, the teen birthrate has declined 26 percent. In the past 10 years, the birthrate for teen-agers ages 15-17 has plummeted 35 percent, while the birthrate for teens ages 18-19 has dropped 20 percent. Moreover, improvements have been made across racial and ethnic lines. Over the past 10 years, the birthrate for black teenagers has plunged 37 percent, falling from 115.5 (per 100,000 black female teen-agers) to 73.1. Among Hispanics, the rate has dropped from 106.7 to 92.4, or by 13 percent; among non-Hispanic white female teenagers, the birthrate had declined from 43.4 in 1991 to 30.2, or by 30 percent.

By all means, let us celebrate such a welcome improvement in the teen birthrate, which began its steady decline five years before welfare was reformed in 1996 and has continued its decline in the five years since then. However, it should also be understood that successes in the overall battle against illegitimacy have been few and far between. Indeed, the news that the proportion of non-marital births has continued to rise year after year, even if the rate of increase has fallen, must be greeted with alarm.

The recent HHS study reported that the proportion of births to unmarried women in 2001 reached 33.4 percent. According to data cited in "Beyond the Color Line: New Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America," a new book edited by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, the proportions of births to unmarried white and black women in 1950 were 2 percent and 18 percent, respectively. In 2001, the comparable figures were 22.5 percent for non-Hispanic white women, 68.3 percent for black women and 42.4 percent for Hispanic women of any race. In the District of Columbia, an alarming 76.1 percent of black births and 54.8 percent of Hispanic births were out of wedlock.

The consequences of illegitimacy are disastrous. Specifically, as the 1995 HHS "Report to Congress on Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing" concluded, "Unmarried mothers are less likely to obtain prenatal care and more likely to have a low birthweight baby. Young children in single-mother families tend to have lower scores on verbal and math achievement tests. In middle childhood, children raised by a single parent tend to receive lower grades, have more behavior problems and have higher rates of chronic psychiatric disorders. Among adolescents and young adults, being raised in a single-mother family is associated with elevated risks of teen-age child-bearing, [being a] high school dropout, incarceration and with being neither employed nor in school."

Commenting on the good news of a declining teenage birthrate and the bad news of the rising proportion of out-of-wedlock births, Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector told Cheryl Wetzstein of The Washington Times that: "Children will benefit very little if all we're doing is delaying the out-of-wedlock birth by a few years."

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