The most intimate and central form of associational life is the family—an institution with primary responsibility for nurturing children and transmitting values, knowledge, aspirations, and skills to subsequent generations. A healthy family life is the foundation for a healthy associational life. Children can overcome the negative consequences of being raised in unhappy or unstable families, but many start out the game of life already behind in crucial ways. More profoundly, 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.
One important way in which family life has weakened in America is reflected in the increasing share of births that occur to unmarried couples. This trend has left fewer children in families mutually planned by parents with the intention of permanence, and more children in the care of parents unconstrained by the commitments of marriage. The share of births to unwed mothers stands at 40 percent—up from 5 percent in 1960. We estimate that nearly half of births start as an unwed pregnancy, including two-thirds of first births to women under 30.
This report explores the rise in unwed childbearing over the past 60 years, examining trends that have interacted to accelerate the unwed share of births. While many changes have played a role, we find that the most important have been the increase in the pool of never-married women (expanding the number of potential unwed mothers) and the decline in post-conception, pre-birth marriage (“shotgun marriage”). These two trends appear much more consequential than increases in nonmarital sexual activity, declines in marital fertility, or changes in the likelihood of obtaining an abortion.
Nonmarital sexual activity has risen substantially since the mid-twentieth century. The share of teen-age women who are sexually active, for example, is 2.5 times higher today than in the early 1960s. Increasing use of reliable contraception has mitigated the effect on unwed childbearing. Over the same period, the share of women having used contraception the first time they had sex outside marriage more than doubled. But while marital pregnancy rates have fallen in half as a result of the contraceptive revolution, because of higher rates of sexual activity, improper contraceptive use, and the increasing acceptability of unwed childbearing, nonmarital pregnancy rates are over one-third higher than in the early 1960s.
As for abortion, pregnant women—married or single—are less likely to obtain an abortion than they were before the Roe v Wade decision. That decline also reflects the declining stigma around unwed childbearing and a drop in unintended pregnancy. Since at least the early 1980s, a rising share of births from nonmarital pregnancies are from pregnancies that were intentional; today, half of births from nonmarital pregnancies are intended.
Three times as many births today are from unwed pregnancies than in the early 1960s, and only 9 percent of these pregnancies are followed by a shotgun marriage—down from 43 percent in the early 1960s.
We trace these trends to the rising affluence of the mid-twentieth century, when a greater prioritization of nonmaterial needs (especially among women, who saw greatly expanded opportunities) met a rising ability to fulfill them. The effect of affluence was felt in the discovery of penicillin (which dramatically reduced the incidence of syphilis); the introduction of the pill (which expanded women’s opportunities by allowing them to control their fertility); the development and increasing affordability of labor-saving home appliances, processed food, and paid child care (which gave women the opportunity to work longer hours outside the home, raising the opportunity cost of childbearing); and the nation’s expansion of a safety net for single mothers (facilitating childbearing without marriage among more disadvantaged women). Rising affluence is an undeniably beneficial development that we should not want to reverse, but it has also led to less stable family circumstances for an increasing number of children. We must find ways to channel future affluence in service of healthier families and a more healthy associational life.