Out of Wedlock Birth Rates High in America; End of Shotgun Weddings Partially to Blame

New study from Social Capital Project explores America's children of unwed parents

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December 11, 2017

The proportion of mothers who are unmarried is at 40 percent, up from five percent in 1960; two-thirds of first births to women under 30 are to unwed women. Determining why out-of-wedlock pregnancy and birth has spiked is the subject of a new report, released Monday, from the Social Capital Project.

The Social Capital Project (SCP), spearheaded by Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) is an ongoing project of Congress's Joint Economic Committee to measure the breakdown in what Lee and others talk about as "associational life" in America. That refers to the institutions—churches, schools, teams, and other civic organizations—which connect Americans and mediate between the individual and the state.

Preeminent among these institutions, the new report argues, is the family, which it calls "the most intimate and central form of associational life."

"A healthy family life is the foundation for a healthy associational life… weakened family life portends a diminished ability of a people to promote and nurture the civil society and pro-social norms that facilitate happiness and prosperity," the report notes.

The weakening of family life, the report contends, is signalled and determined by the shocking rise in unmarried birth rates over the past half a century. This matters in part because the children of single mothers, whether the parents nominally "stay together" or split up, do worse across a number of dimensions when compared to their peers from intact homes.

"While children intentionally born into married families can subsequently experience divorce, unwed childbearing is particularly worrisome because it often signals both unintended pregnancy and an unstable parental relationship," the report reads.

The reasons for the increase in out-of-wedlock births are several and complicated. More single people are having sex, and fewer single women are choosing to have abortions. At the same time, shifting marriage trends have pushed the age of first marriage up, as well as the number of older women who are divorced or never married.

The latter facts add up to an increase in the pool of never-married women, which the report calls one of two "most important" factors in the rise of out-of-wedlock births.

The other most significant factor is the vanishing of the so-called "shotgun marriage," the sequence of events where a woman becomes pregnant, and then she and the father of the child are socially pressured into tying the knot.

Between the early 1950s and the late 2000s, the proportion of births from unwed pregnancies increased from 10 to almost 50 percent. Similarly, the rate of births to previously unwed couples who married after conception but before birth was 43 percent in the early 1960s; it dropped steadily to nine percent in the late 2000s.

"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 argues.

The two major shifts—the rise in the unmarried female population and the vanishing of the shotgun marriage—are, the report argues, a product of increasing affluence in America. Growing wealth, technological advancement, and the rise of the welfare state have combined to make going it alone easier and contributed to an overall decoupling of pregnancy and marriage as naturally related. That, in turn, contributes to a snowballing effect by which "as nonmarital sex became safer and its consequences less severe, more single men and women became sexually active."

The report is quick to insist that the growth in affluence is not, per se, undesirable—ludditism is not the way forward. However, that affluence has not been sufficiently communitarian in its application.

"To date, we have tended to spend additional wealth to pursue individual and personal priorities. That has eroded our associational life—including the stability of our families, especially among disadvantaged families who have enjoyed the fruits of rising affluence less than others have," the report concludes. "Continuing to make the same choices with our ever-higher purchasing power threatens to diminish the quality of life for rich and poor alike."

The results of this report add to the data provided by the SCP, which paint a picture of the breakdown in American associational life. Sen. Lee, in response to the report, expressed his hope that the project as a whole will give politicians a longer view of the impact of their actions on American society.

"The structure of American families has changed over the past generation and it is important that policy makers study the factors that are contributing to this trend," Lee said. "I hope this paper contributes to that debate."