Changing Face of Motherhood: Who's Giving Birth?

Children Pay Consequences for Decline in Marriage

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, May 24, 2009 ( The number of children born outside a stable married life continues to rise. Northern European countries have the highest levels of births to single women, but the United States is catching up.

The latest figures come from a report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to the May Data Brief issued by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, births to unmarried women totaled 1,714,643 in 2007, 26% more than in 2002. As a result in 2007 nearly 4 in 10 births in the U.S. were to unmarried women.

Contrary to the traditional concerns about adolescent single mothers, the report noted that the rise in birth rates was concentrated in women in their 20s or older, while declining or changing little for unmarried teenagers. In fact, teenagers accounted for just 23% of non-marital births in 2007, down steeply from 50% in 1970.

Thus, while no less than 86% of teenage births are non-marital, older women are catching up. For women aged 20-24, 60% of births were to singles, and nearly one-third of births to women 25-29 were non-marital in 2007. Overall, in 2007, 45% of births in the 20s age bracket were to unmarried women.

The higher number of single mothers in the older age groups is a recent change, according to the CDC.

For women over 30, about one in six births were to singles in 2007, much higher than the proportion in 1970: 1 in 12.

Births outside marriage are typically low for the youngest teens and for women over 35, and are highest for women in their early twenties, the report observed.

Racial background also influences the percentages of single mothers. Births outside marriage are highest for Hispanic women followed by black women. Rates for non-Hispanic white and Asian or Pacific Islander women are much lower.

European trends

The proportions in the United States are considerably higher than in some industrialized countries. For example, 30% or less of recent births were to unmarried women in Germany, Spain, Canada, Italy, and Japan.

Other European countries, however, have higher proportions of single mothers. The latest information from the Eurostat, the official statistical body for the European Union, is also for 2007.

It shows that Denmark, for example, had 46.1% of live births occurring outside marriage. France was even higher, at 51.69%, as was Sweden, at 54.76%. Iceland had the highest proportion, at 63.77%.

Meanwhile, in Britain, marriage continues to weaken. The latest data revealed that marriage rates are at their lowest since they were first calculated in 1862, reported the Times newspaper, Feb. 13.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for 2007 showed that only one in 50 single women marries each year, and only one in 43 single men. The information relates just to England and Wales.

There were 231,450 marriages in 2007, a decline of 3.3% compared to the previous year. The number of marriages has fallen by a quarter since 1991, according to the ONS.

The average age at first marriage continued to be high. In 2007 it reached 31.9 years for men and 29.8 for women, compared with 31.8 and 29.7 respectively, the year before.

No church bells

The number of couples getting married in religious ceremonies has gone down as well. There were 77,490 religious weddings in England and Wales in 2007. That number means church weddings have halved since the early 1980s.

A couple of months later, another report from the ONS gave more details on family life. According to a report published Apr. 16 by the Telegraph newspaper, the percentage of households comprising the traditional nuclear family — a couple with children — fell from 52% to 36% in the period between 1971 and 2008.

The number of adults living alone has gone from 6% to 12% in the same period, due to a combination of divorce and marrying at a later age.

Overall, around 1.6 million children were being brought up by an unmarried couple in 2008, a sharp rise on the figure of 1 million a decade previously.

The decline of marriage and the traditional family continues as research confirms that children are best off when raised in a stable married environment.

A March 11 report by the Canadian Institute of Marriage and Family looked at the differences between children brought up in married homes and those raised by cohabiting couples.

Frank Jones, a research fellow at the institute, analyzed data from Statistics Canada’s National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth.

He found that that teens who as children had parents who cohabited are more likely than teens of married parents to: smoke; sell drugs; engage in sexual intercourse; have a lower age of sexual initiation; have poor relationships with their mom and dad; and have parents who do not get along.

Marriage advantages

“Marriage benefits children in ways that living together does not,” Jones commented. “Public policy should acknowledge the social good that healthy marriage delivers.”

One of the reasons that children fare better when raised by a married couple is the greater degree of stability in the household. Married parents are more than twice as likely to stay together compared to those who are unwed, reported the British newspaper the Daily Mail, Oct. 18.

The information came from the Millennium Cohort Study, a survey of more than 15,000 children born in the first two years of this decade.

The study found that 23% of children of cohabiting parents had suffered the breakup of their families before they reached the age of 5. By contrast only one in 10 children of married parents saw them divorce or separate before reaching 5 years of age.

In spite of the clear evidence in favor of marriage, government policy in many countries fails to support married couples sufficiently.

Fiscal penalties

Civitas, an English study group, published a report in January showing that married couples are thousands of pounds worse off than single parents when it comes to taxes and benefits.

In the report “Individualists Who Co-Operate,” Civitas also pointed out that the welfare system financially rewards single mothers if they live separately from their partner. The fiscal disadvantage of forming a single household or getting married is especially marked for those on a lower income.

In what Civitas termed “a triumph of romance over economics,” many couples choose to live together in spite of the loss of welfare benefits. Clearly, the study pointed out, without these powerful economic incentives favoring living apart, there would be a greater number of couples coming together.

Britain is particularly unfavorable to married couples, the report continued. It cited data from a 2006 survey of industrialized nations, showing that a single income married couple with children in the UK paid 40% more tax compared to other countries.

“The importance of the family for the life and well-being of society entails a particular responsibility for society to support and strengthen marriage and the family,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church observes in No. 2210. A responsibility often neglected today, to the cost of society itself and to countless families.

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