The number of first-born U.S. babies born into a home with a married mother and father has fallen below 60 percent for the first time, the Census Bureau said Tuesday, while more than one in five first-born children are now born to cohabiting parents.
The findings document the slow but steady rise of what some researchers call “fragile families” — couples who live together and have a baby, but, in too many cases, break apart within a few years without ever getting married.
Statistically, the unwed status bodes poorly for many of these new mothers, according to the new report, written by Census Bureau researchers Lindsay M. Monte and Renee R. Ellis.
“Research shows that women with a nonmarital first birth are both less likely to ever marry and less likely to remain married if they do marry,” it said. Childbearing outside of marriage is also linked to higher risks for poverty, lower educational attainment and family instability.
The new report, “Fertility of Women in the United States: 2012,” looks at first births and fertility patterns in women in 2012 as well as previous time periods.
“It’s important to track these changes in fertility because recent research suggests that childbearing is related to women’s rates of employment, their educational attainment and their economic well-being,” said Ms. Monte.
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The report finds that most American women still are married when they give birth to their first child, but the margins are steadily declining.
During the 1990s, around 70 percent of first-time mothers of all ages were married, with about 18 percent single and the rest cohabiting, the report said.
By the years 2005-2012, however, data showed that a significantly smaller majority of new mothers — 55 percent — were married, while 25 percent were cohabiting and 20 percent were single and without a steady partner.
Moreover, the new data show that for the youngest mothers, norms surrounding marriage and childbearing have flipped.
Before 1990, more than 60 percent of first-time mothers aged 23 or younger were married, with smaller cohorts either cohabiting or single.
But after 2005, only 24 percent of these young women were married when they had their first child. Instead, they were more likely to be either cohabiting (38 percent) or not in any defined relationship at all (38 percent).
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As marital norms weakened and cohabiting rose in the culture, demographers realized they needed more information about mothers — specifically whether the “unwed” mother was with a stable partner or on her own.
Thanks to changes in the bureau’s Current Population Survey, relationships are more clearly revealed. The new data show, for instance, that among the young first-time mothers, “the growth in cohabitation as a context for first birth has roughly paralleled the decline in marriage,” the report said.
In other highlights, the new report found that:
• Married childbearing is the norm for women aged 25 or older — at least 70 percent of first births occur in wedlock.
• Asian women are especially likely to marry before childbearing, with 80 percent or more of first-born Asian-American children born to married parents.
• Among the states, South Dakota had the most births per capita by unmarried women, with 55 new births per every 1,000 unmarried women. Utah had the highest rate of total births, with 77 births for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 50. By region, the Northeast saw the fewest number of new births per every 1,000 unmarried women.