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U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Vice Chairman

Social Capital Project U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah

About the Project

The Social Capital Project is a multi-year research effort that will investigate the evolving nature, quality, and importance of our associational life. “Associational life” is our shorthand for the web of social relationships through which we pursue joint endeavors—namely, our families, our communities, our workplaces, and our religious congregations. These institutions are critical to forming our character and capacities, providing us with meaning and purpose, and for addressing the many challenges we face.


Nonmarital childbearing has increased dramatically in the United States. In 1960, roughly 5 percent of births were outside of marriage. Today, over 40 percent of children are born to single mothers. This trend is troubling, considering that children are on average at-risk for poorer outcomes when raised outside a married-parent home.1 As we explain in our recent report, Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage: The Rise in Unwed Childbearing, several factors contributed to the increase in nonmarital births. The most significant factors, however, have been the decline in “shotgun marriage” (unions occurring between a nonmarital conception and a birth) and the drop in marriage altogether.

Among women of childbearing age (15-44 years of age), we found that the drop in the overall marriage rate was the greatest contributing factor to nonmarital childbearing. But the decline in shotgun marriage was nearly as strong in its impact. When we used the method of a 1999 Census Bureau report by limiting our sample to women ages 15-29 and looking just at first births—focusing on women who were transitioning to motherhood—the decline in shotgun marriage played the largest role in the growth of nonmarital childbearing.2

Increase in the Share of Births That Are to Unwed Mothers, and Counterfactual Scenarios, Previously Childless Women 15-29, 1960-64 to 2005-09

Source: Social Capital Project analyses. See the Source Notes at the end of the report Love, Marriage, and the Baby Carriage: The Rise in Unwed Childbearing.

As a follow-up to our previous report, this analysis examines trends in nonmarital births, nonmarital conceptions, and shotgun marriages by education level and race. We rely on Current Population Survey (CPS) data from the June 1980 and 1995 Fertility and Marital History Supplements, and various cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). (See the Source Notes to our original report for methodological details.

See here to read more of the analysis.