Fewer Teen Moms but More Babies Born to Single Moms Than Ever

Rachel Sheffield /

Yesterday, The Washington Post heralded the decline in teeth birth rates, stating:

As the nation continued to struggle in the recession in 2009, the rate at which U.S. women are having babies continued to fall, pushing the teen birth rate to a record low, federal officials reported Tuesday.

While a decrease in the teen birth rate is good and well, such news seems to portray the idea that single motherhood in the United States is on the downturn. However, just the opposite is true. In fact, the number of children born to single mothers is on the rise and has been since the 1960s. In 1964, fewer than 10 percent of babies were born to single mothers. Today that number is above 40 percent for the overall population and even higher among Hispanics and African Americans (50 and 70 percent, respectively).

How can this be if teen moms are fewer in number? Because the large majority of single moms are well beyond their high school years. In reality, high-school-age girls are responsible for fewer than 10 percent of births occurring to single mothers, while women between 18 and 29 years of age are responsible for roughly 75 percent of out-of-wedlock births.

Yet most of the talk heard from policymakers regarding this matter centers around the need to throw increasing amounts of money at teen pregnancy prevention programs, mostly those that get birth control into the hands of high school students.

While teenage birth is a modest problem, the current out-of-wedlock birthrate among women in their 20s is a catastrophe for mothers, children, and society. Single parenthood and out-of-wedlock childbearing are the predominant cause of child poverty in the U.S. today. Data clearly show that children raised by single mothers are more than five times more likely to be poor than are children raised by married mothers with the same education level.

And access to birth control is not to blame. Research shows that single low-income mothers do not report a lack of access to birth control as the reason for having a baby. They become pregnant because they want to have a baby.

Unfortunately, marriage has become all but obsolete in low-income communities. Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’s research on low-income communities clearly paints the picture: Women in low-income communities desire to have children and do so, yet fathers quickly drop out of the picture. To these women and men, marriage is regarded as a middle-class institution, something to enter into only when a couple has made it financially and proven that their relationship will last. Of course, having a baby as a low-educated, single woman is more likely to lead to a life of poverty and welfare dependency than to reaching any level of affluence and building a stable family.

Unfortunately, recent research shows that this decline in marriage, as well as the increase in children born outside of marriage, is now moving into middle America.

If the United States is really interested in decreasing the out-of-wedlock birthrate instead of continuing to pretend that teen pregnancy is responsible for this problem, we must take steps to support marriage in low-income communities. First, policymakers can start by eliminating policies that penalize marriage. Also, the U.S. should launch a campaign to promote the benefits of marriage in low-income communities. Furthermore, marriage education for low-income adults and high school students should be put into place to help couples learn the skills to sustaining a healthy marriage.

Fortunately, there is still hope for American families, but if the United States fails to act soon, the ill consequences of declining marriage rates and increasing single-motherhood will only continue its upward climb, leading to increased financial burdens for the American taxpayer and, more tragically, to a host of negative outcomes for children, families, and society.