Age of Pregnant Mothers Up, but Out-Of-Wedlock Births Still High, CDC Says

New birth rate numbers show America still below replacement rate

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American women are having fewer children and later, according to a recent CDC report on fertility in 2016, but America’s rate of out-of-wedlock births still remains at elevated levels compared to historical standards.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recorded 3,945,875 births in 2016, a decline of one percent as compared against 2015. The general fertility rate (GFR)—the number of births per 1,000 women age 15 to 44—declined to 62 per 1,000 women. The average age of mothers at first birth was 26.6 years, an increase from 2015 and a record high for the nation.

Within that declining GFR, the overall drop is driven by a nine percent decline among women ages 15 to 19 and a four percent decline among women ages 20 to 29. The 2016 fertility rate for women in their 20s was the lowest on record. By contrast, the fertility rate for women ages 30 to 49 increased, while the birth rate for women age 50 and over remained essentially stable. All of this contributed to the progressive increase in the average age of first birth.

The total fertility rate (TFR)—which estimates the number of births a group of 1,000 women would have over their lifetimes—also fell one percent, to 1,820.5 births per 1,000 women. This is lower than the TFR replacement rate (2,100 births per 1,000) women, the rate needed for a generation to replace itself. TFR fell below replacement for all ethnic groups, including Hispanics, who had been above replacement prior to 2016. The U.S. has been below replacement since 1971, the CDC noted.

The out-of-wedlock birthrate declined less than one percent in 2016 as compared against 2015, down to 39.8 percent of all births from 40.3 percent in the previous year. That is down, but not substantially, from the 2009 peak of 41 percent of births. The rate of out-of-wedlock births for teens fell, with the rate for women age 15 to 17 hitting an all time low. However, the same rate for women age 35 and over actually rose between 2015 and 2016, hitting what the CDC termed "historic peaks."

While the out-of-wedlock birth rate is down as compared against recent years, it still remains at historic highs over the past several decades. A report released last year by the Social Capital Project (SCP) explained the out-of-wedlock birthrate has risen to its current average of around 40 percent from just five percent in 1960.

The SCP attributes this overall rate spike to a coincidence of factors, including an increase in single people having sex, a decrease in the number of abortions, and an increase in the age of first marriage. But most notably, the report attributes the increase to the vanishing of so-called shotgun weddings, that is, weddings prompted by an otherwise out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

"The decline in shotgun marriage has been a bigger factor than changes in either nonmarital or marital pregnancy rates taken individually … the unwed birth share would have risen only to 27 percent if shotgun marriage rates had stayed as high as in the early 1960s while everything else changed," the report claims.

Regardless of the cause of the boom in out-of-wedlock births, the children of unmarried parents fare far worse than counterparts whose parents are married. Those children and their families experience high levels of instability, are far more reliant on government welfare programs, and perform worse on cognitive tests, according to The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, jointly conducted by researchers at Princeton and Columbia.

"Single mothers and mothers in unstable partnerships engage in harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities with their child than stably married mothers. Family instability also reduces children's cognitive test scores and increases aggressive behavior. The increase in aggression is especially pronounced among boys," a summary of the report noted.