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America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2017

Births to Unmarried Women

Although birth rates have declined recently, the overall increases in births to unmarried women over the last several decades have affected family structure and the economic security of children.5, 6 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 are children of married mothers.6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Indicator FAM2.A: Birth rates for unmarried women by age of mother, 1980–2015
Indicator FAM2.A: Birth rates for unmarried women by age of mother, 1980–2015

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

  • The birth rate among unmarried women ages 15–44 had both stable and increasing periods during 1980–2008, followed by a decline during 2009–2015. Between 1980 and 2008, the birth rate for unmarried women ages 15–44 increased 22 points, from 29 to 52 births for every 1,000 unmarried women, and then decreased 8 points, to 43 per 1,000 in 2015.
  • Unmarried birth rates for all age groups generally increased between 1980 and the mid-1990s, but have shown varying patterns for different groups since then. The unmarried birth rate for adolescents ages 15–17 declined during 1994–2015 (10 per 1,000 in 2015), after a period of increasing birth rates since 1980. For adolescents ages 18–19, after varying periods of increases and declines during 1994–2007, the rate has declined since 2007, reaching 37 per 1,000 in 2015.
  • Birth rates for unmarried women in their twenties changed relatively little during the mid- to late-1990s. In the 2000s, the rate for women ages 20–24 rose from 70 per 1,000 in 2002 to 80 per 1,000 in 2007, and then declined to 60 per 1,000 in 2015. For women ages 25–29, the rate rose from 59 per 1,000 in 2000 to 77 per 1,000 in 2007, and then declined to 67 per 1,000 in 2015.
  • Birth rates for unmarried women ages 30–34 increased steadily from the late 1990s to 2008 and then declined to 57 per 1,000 in 2013, before increasing to 60 per 1,000 in 2015.
  • During 1980–2015, rates for unmarried women ages 35–39 and 40–44 generally rose. The unmarried birth rates for both age groups in 2015 (34 per 1,000 and 9 per 1,000, respectively), were more than three times the rates in 1980.
  • In 2015, the birth rate for unmarried women was highest for women ages 25–29 (67 per 1,000), followed by women ages 30–34 (60 per 1,000) and women ages 20–24 (60 per 1,000).

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.6 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.11, 12, 13

Indicator FAM2.B: Percentage of all births to unmarried women by age of mother, 1980 and 2015
Indicator FAM2.B: Percentage of all births to unmarried women by age of mother, 1980 and 2015

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

  • The percentage of all births to unmarried women was 18 percent in 1980 and 40 percent in 2015.
  • Between 1980 and 2015, the percentage of births to unmarried women among adolescents ages 15–17 increased from 62 percent in 1980 to 96 percent in 2015; among women ages 18–19, the percentage increased from 40 percent in 1980 to 86 percent in 2015.
  • Among women in their 20s, the percentage of births to unmarried women increased from 19 percent in 1980 to 66 percent in 2015 among women ages 20–24 and from 9 percent in 1980 to 38 percent in 2015 among women ages 25–29.
  • Among mothers age 30 and over, the percentage of births to unmarried women increased from 1980 to 2015. For mothers ages 30–34, the percentage of births increased from 7 percent to 23 percent. For mothers ages 35–39, the percentage of births increased from 9 percent to 22 percent. For mothers age 40 and over, the percentage of births increased from 12 percent to 25 percent.
  • The percentage of births that were to unmarried women decreased as the age of the mother increased. In 2015, more than 95 percent of births to mothers age 17 and younger were to unmarried mothers. About two-thirds of births to women ages 20–24 were nonmarital. About one-quarter of births to mothers ages 30–34 (23 percent), ages 35–39 (22 percent), and age 40 and older (25 percent) were to mothers who were not married.
  • table icon FAM2A HTML Table FAM2B HTML Table

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

    6 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.

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

    8 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.

    9 Ventura, S. J., & 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.

    10 Mathews, T. J., & 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.

    11 Curtin, S. C., Ventura, S. J., & Martinez, G. M. (2014). Recent declines in nonmarital childbearing in the United States . NCHS Data Brief, No. 162. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.

    12 The birth rate for unmarried women is the number of births per 1,000 unmarried women in a given age group (i.e., ages 20–24). The percentage of all births to unmarried women is the number of births occurring to unmarried women divided by the total number of births. The percentage of all births 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 whereas births for married women changed little.

    13 Martin, J. A., Hamilton, B. E., Osterman, J. K., Driscoll, A. K., & Mathews, T. J. (2017). Births: final data for 2015. National Vital Statistics Reports, 66 (1). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.