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America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2013

Births to Unmarried Women

Increases in births to unmarried women are among the many changes in American society that have affected family structure and the economic security of children.4 Children of unmarried mothers are at higher risk of adverse birth outcomes such as low birthweight and infant mortality than are children of married mothers. They are also more likely to live in poverty than children of married mothers.5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Indicator Fam2.A: Birth rates for unmarried women by age of mother, 1980–2011
Birth rates for unmarried women by age of mother, 1980–2011

NOTE: The 2011 rates for total ages 15–44 are preliminary. Data for 2011 for specific age groups were not available at time of publication.

SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System.

  • There were 46 births for every 1,000 unmarried women ages 15–44 in 2011.10
  • Between 1980 and 1994, the birth rate for unmarried women ages 15–44 increased from 29 per 1,000 to 46 per 1,000. Between 1995 and 2002, the rate fluctuated little, ranging from 43 per 1,000 to 44 per 1,000; from 2002 to 2008, however, the rate increased from 44 per 1,000 to 52 per 1,000, before declining to 46 per 1,000 in 2011.8, 10, 11
  • Rates in 2010 remained highest for women ages 20–24 (70 per 1,000), followed closely by the rate for women ages 25–29 (69 per 1,000).6, 12
  • The birth rate among unmarried adolescents ages 15–19 declined between 1994 and 2005, increased in 2006 and 2007, and then decreased steadily until 2010. Among adolescent subgroups, the rate for adolescents ages 15–17 declined from 32 per 1,000 in 1994 to 19 in 2005 and has continued to decline from 2007 to 2010 (it was 17 in 2010). For adolescents ages 18–19, the birth rate declined from 1994 to 2003 and increased annually from 2004 to 2007; the rate declined from 2007 to 2010, when it was 52 per 1,000.6
  • Birth rates for unmarried women in their twenties changed relatively little during the mid- to late 1990s. In the 2000s, for women ages 20–24, the rate rose from 70 per 1,000 in 2002 to 80 in 2007, and then declined to 70 in 2010. For women ages 25–29, the rate rose from 59 per 1,000 in 2000 to 77 in 2007 and then declined to 69 in 2010. Birth rates for unmarried women ages 30–34 increased steadily from the late 1990s through 2008 and then declined to 56 in 2010.6
  • The proportion of women of childbearing age who were unmarried continued to rise to over half in 2011. However, nonmarital cohabitation has remained relatively unchanged: nearly 3 in 10 unmarried women ages 25–29 in 2006–2010 were in cohabiting relationships, unchanged from 2002.13

Children are at greater risk for adverse consequences when born to a single mother because the social, emotional, and financial resources available to the family may be limited.5 The proportion of births to unmarried women is useful for understanding the extent to which children born in a given year may be affected by any disadvantage—social, financial, or health—associated with being born outside of marriage. The change in the percentage of births to unmarried women reflects both changes in the birth rate for unmarried women relative to the birth rate for married women and changes in the percentage of women of childbearing age who are unmarried.14

Indicator Fam2.B: Percentage of all births to unmarried women by age of mother, 1980 and 2011
Percentage of all births to unmarried women by age of mother, 1980 and 2011

NOTE: Data for 2011 are preliminary.

SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System.

  • The percentage of births to unmarried women among all births decreased from 40.8 percent in 2010 to 40.7 percent in 2011.10
  • The percentage of all births to unmarried women rose from 18 percent of total births in 1980 to 33 percent in 1994. From 1994 to 2002, the percentage ranged from 32 to 34 percent. The percentage increased from 2002 through 2008 and remained stable at 41 percent through 2011.
  • Between 1980 and 2011, the proportion of births to unmarried women rose for women in all age groups. Among adolescents, the proportion was high throughout the period and rose from 62 to 95 percent for ages 15–17 and from 40 to 86 percent for ages 18–19. The proportion more than tripled for births to unmarried women in their twenties, rising from 19 to 64 percent for ages 20–24 and from 9 to 34 percent for ages 25–29. The proportion of births to unmarried women in their thirties more than doubled, from 8 to 21 percent.8, 10, 15
  • Nearly half of first births were to unmarried women in 2010. Almost three-fourths of births to women under age 25 having their first child were nonmarital.16
  • The increases in the proportion of births to unmarried women, especially during the 1980s, were linked to increases in the birth rates for unmarried women in all age groups during this period. In addition, the number of unmarried women increased more rapidly than the number of married women, as women from the baby boom generation postponed marriage.8, 17
  • During the late 1990s, the rate of increase in the proportion of births to unmarried women slowed. The comparative stability was linked to a renewed rise in birth rates for married women.8 From 2002 to 2007, the proportion of births to unmarried women grew, reflecting increases, especially among adult women ages 20 and older, in nonmarital birth rates concurrent with relatively little change in birth rates for married women.12, 16

table icon FAM2.A HTML TableFAM2.B HTML Table

4 National Center for Health Statistics. (1995). Report to Congress on out-of-wedlock childbearing. Hyattsville, MD: Author.

5 McLanahan, S. (1995). The consequences of nonmarital childbearing for women, children, and society. In National Center for Health Statistics, Report to Congress on out-of-wedlock childbearing. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

6 Martin, J.A., Hamilton, B.E., Ventura, S.J., Osterman, M.J.K., Wilson, E.C., and Mathews, T.J. (2012). Births: Final data for 2010. National Vital Statistics Reports 61(1). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

7 Ventura, S.J. (1995). Births to unmarried mothers: United States, 1980–1992. Vital and Health Statistics, 53(21). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

8 Ventura, S.J., and Bachrach, C.A. (2000). Nonmarital childbearing in the United States, 1940–1999. National Vital Statistics Reports, 48(16). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

9 Mathews, T.J., and MacDorman, M.F. (2012). Infant mortality statistics from the 2008 period linked birth/infant death data set. National Vital Statistics Reports, 60(5). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

10 Hamilton, B.E., Martin, J.A., and Ventura, S.J. (2012). Births: Preliminary data for 2011. National Vital Statistics Reports, 61(5). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

11 Hamilton, B.E., Sutton, P.D., and Ventura, S.J. (2003). Revised birth and fertility rates for the 1990s and new rates for Hispanic populations, 2000 and 2001: United States. National Vital Statistics Reports, 51(12). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

12 Ventura, S.J. (2009). Changing patterns of nonmarital childbearing in the United States. NCHS Data Brief, No. 18. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

13 National Center for Health Statistics. (2011). 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth. Public use file available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/nsfg_2006_2010_puf.htm. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics; and Chandra, A., Martinez, G.M., Mosher, W.D., Abma, J.C., and Jones, J. (2005). Fertility, family planning, and reproductive health of U.S. women: Data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth. Vital and Health Statistics 23(25). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

14 The birth rate for unmarried women is the number of births per 1,000 unmarried women in a given age group, for example, 20–24 years. The percentage of all births that are to unmarried women is the number of births occurring to unmarried women divided by the total number of births. The percentage of all births that are to unmarried women is affected by the birth rate for married women, the birth rate for unmarried women (who account for about 40 percent of all births), and the proportion of women of childbearing age who are unmarried. The percentage of births to unmarried women increased in recent years, because there were rapid increases in the birth rate for unmarried women while births for married women changed little.

15 Ventura, S.J. (2009). Changing patterns of nonmarital childbearing in the United States. NCHS Data Brief, No. 18. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

16 National Center for Health Statistics. (2013). National Vital Statistics System, unpublished tabulations.

17 U.S. Census Bureau. (various years). Marital status and living arrangements (annual reports) and, beginning in 1999, America's families and living arrangements. Current Population Reports, Series P-20. Beginning in 1995, reports are available on the U.S. Census Bureau Web site at http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/ms-la.html and, since 1999, at http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam.html.