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More Than Half of Mothers Under 30 Aren't Married: This Is a Symptom, Not the Problem

By amberdoty |

The institution of marriage has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. In 1960, nearly 70% of American adults were married. In that same year, 59% of adults aged 18-29 were married, compared to today’s 20% in that same age range. According to a study by the Pew Research center, at present, barely half of U.S. adults are married, a record low.

Equipped with this knowledge, it should come as no surprise that a recent study conducted by Child Trends revealed that in 2009 53% of children born to women under the age of 30 were born to unmarried women. I first came across this statistic in an article on Motherlode in which the author, KJ Dell’Antonia, points out that in recent years we have de-stigmatized having children out of wedlock. “Many of us pride ourselves on the modernity of this relatively new way of thinking,” she says. Dell’Antonia then goes on to question whether that pride is misplaced. “What’s most troubling about these figures is that marriage is good for children,” she says.

I have to both agree and disagree with that statement. Yes, the research shows that the children of married couples are less likely to live in poverty or to exhibit behavioral problems, and are more likely to perform well in school. The research also shows that in 2010 64% of college graduates were married compared to 47% of high school graduates. Which begs the question, is it marriage that’s good for children or is it the socioeconomic status into which they are born? 

In a world where the cost of college tuition has risen by 900% in the last 30 years, making it more and more unaffordable for the average American, and where the more educated you are, the more likely you are to marry, aren’t we setting unwed mothers, a group that is already at an economic disadvantage, up to fail by comparison?

It hardly seems fair to compare the life of a child raised by an unwed mother with a high school education struggling to make ends meet in today’s economic climate and a child raised by a married couple with college educations and chalk the success of the child raised in a “traditional” home up to their parents’ marriage.

In her article, Dell’Antonia poses a similar question, “Is it the marriage, or the greater stability that often correlates with marriage, that makes the difference, and which should we be trying to affect?”

Personally, I think we need to take the focus off of the decline in marriage and the rise in out-of-wedlock births and put it back on ways to improve the stability and the quality of life of every family, be that family traditional or untraditional.

Photo credit: Flickr

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About amberdoty



Amber Doty is a writer, scientist, wife, and mother to two boys. On Babble, Amber wrote for both Strollerderby and KidScoop about parenting news, pop culture, raising school-age children and general parenting tips. More of her work can be found on her website, The Daily Doty.

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0 thoughts on “More Than Half of Mothers Under 30 Aren't Married: This Is a Symptom, Not the Problem

  1. ali says:

    Very well said. As an unmarried mother under 30 I appreciate your well rounded opinion. Our children’s wellbeing is nothing to do with our marital status, more to do with our vehement commitment to one another and more importantly to them. And yes we are graduates and I stay at home so we are very fortunate on that front.
    On a related note, is divorce not higher now? How does that affect kids?

  2. Suzie says:

    I am curious to know why you don’t get married, Ali, or if you have plans to…and how long you have been with your partner and how old your child is…I am a traditionalist in that I think people should most definitely get married THEN have children. Asking these questions…”is it marriage that’s good for children or is it the socioeconomic status into which they are born?” Or KJ’s “Is it the marriage, or the greater stability that often correlates with marriage, that makes the difference, and which should we be trying to affect?” Seems to me like grasping at straws to try and justify people’s lack of self-control and lack of ability to be responsible. Yes, money makes it easier when you make mistakes and to CYA once those mistakes have been made, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is fully within people’s ability to not bring children into this world until they are in a stable situation.

  3. says:

    These statistics are so depressing. I think you missed a big part of the equation, though; unwed mothers often correlates with absent fathers. I feel THAT is the bigger problem kids face when born out of wedlock.

  4. Shawna Elise says:

    I’d like to point out that just because a child has unwed parents doesn’t mean the parents aren’t together. My partner Nick and I have been together for 3 years. We have a 1 year old daughter. We live together and raise her together and are indistinguishable from a married couple in almost every way.

  5. sally says:

    It saddens me that the marriage rate is in shambles. I just don’t understand-why have kids with someone you don’t want to be with? And don’t say it was an accident because accidents are very easy to avoid now-a-days. I’m so thankful for my husband and our family.

    @Shawna Elise- This makes no sense. He loves you enough to make a baby with you but not enough to put it in writing? I don’t think it’s the same at all.

  6. AmyRenee says:

    I live in the community where the NYT article discussed, and unmarried moms are EXTREMELY common. One of the key demographics they mentioned is “women under 30 with some college but not a degree”. They didn’t specifically mention it, but most of the women I’ve met in this situation are CURRENTLY in college (the majority in the nursing program at community college) and are in a stable relationship but are choosing not to get married because they are afraid their household income would affect their ability to get grants & financial aid, in addition to WIC & food stamps. In fact, it is so common I have to wonder if the financial aid advisors, WIC coordinators, etc are DISCOURAGING marriage – probably not intentionally. It’s frustrating to me as a married woman with children – when layoffs wer sweeping through my company, one of my co-workers was living with her husband but not married and she made the offhand comment that if she got laid off she would just go on WIC. I never was in the situation in the end , but the thought actually crossed my mind that if I lost my job long term, could I divorce my husband to qualify for WIC & health insurance for my kids? My husband is self employed and if we lost our health insurance through my job I’m not sure how else we could insure the kids. I know several couples now that are “engaged” but are going back and forth about whether it makes sense financially to get married – does the savings from being able to get on one health insurance plan instead of two outweigh the tax penalties, etc etc etc

  7. Diera says:

    Yeah, I would like to see these statistics distinguish between ‘unmarried’ mothers like Ali and Shawna Elise (mothers who live with their partners and have a commitment to them but who aren’t legally married) and truly single mothers. I suspect there’s a big difference. Given how easy it is to get divorced, there’s nothing magic about being legally married. What children need is loving parents and emotional and economic stability. As long as those are provided, I doubt that there would be a difference in outcomes between the ‘unmarried’ and married couples.

  8. Sandra says:

    The thing is when you stop encouraging marriage, there is more sex outside of it. And frankly, contraceptives just aren’t that great. We have more contraceptive resources than ever and yet the amount of unwanted pregnancies has increased. We need to reinforce the institution that best accommodates families.

  9. goddess says:

    I think it stands to reason that having TWO good, devoted, effective and committed parents is better than just one. But one good parent is better than having a crappy parent in the picture. But I’m measuring mental health and not necessarily the standard of living/socio-economic status.

  10. Suzie says:

    @Amyrenee, it sound like all the gov entitlements are throwing things off…big surprise there!

  11. Diera says:

    Contraception’s pretty great if you’re aggressive about using it. I had protected sex (first unmarried, then married) for years before having intentionally procreative sex; no pregnancy for any of the protected years, became pregnant quickly both times I was trying so it’s not like I wasn’t fertile. If you are really serious about avoiding pregnancy, using both a barrier and a hormonal method together (or a barrier method and an IUD, or even two different barrier methods) make your odds pretty good. I think it’s more likely it’s the fact that the negative stigma of unmarried pregnancy has virtually disappeared has made people a lot more casual about contraception.

  12. KateThree says:

    I am an unmarried mother of 3 kids. Their dad (yes, they all have the same father) and I have been in a committed relationship since before they were born–we’ve now been together for almost 12 years. I don’t have a college degree (but I do have “some college” as they say), but their dad does (and he is currently working on a second degree). We are broke now, but that is mainly due to the sacrifices we are making to send my not-husband back to school.
    To answer Suzie’s question (which wasn’t directed at me, but whatever): having divorced parents and seeing friends get divorced after very short marriages, and then conversely, seeing other friends being denied marriages due to their sexual orientations–these things made me question, essentially, the point of marriage. It’s clearly not about staying together forever, or there wouldn’t be (as many) divorces and clearly not just about love and commitment or gays could get married. For me the question was not so much “Should we get married?” but more like, “Why would we get married?”

  13. CW says:

    “is divorce not higher now?” Actually, it is much lower now than in the late ’70′s and early ’80′s. The divorce rate today is nowhere near the supposed “1 in 2″ (if it ever was that high, which is in dispute). A recent study found that for couples where both spouses are college graduates and neither were previously married, 5 out of 6 will NOT divorce. Even among non-college graduates, the divorce rate has fallen (just not as much as for college graduates).

  14. goddess says:

    I was always uber-fertile. But using my birth control faithfully permitted me to conceive when we chose, and contracept for over 2 decades successfully. No oopsie-babies.

  15. Vincent DiCaro says:

    It is kind of irrelevant whether it is marriage or the stability that marriage provides. If stability matters more, but marriage provides it, then it is marriage that matters anyway. Why, if we already have an institution that provides stability for children, are we searching for some other unknown thing to try to replicate that stability? It doesn’t make any sense.

    Also, as ARTSYNINA commented, father absence is the end result of most of these situations. Research shows that 2 in 3 children in father-absent homes have contact with their fathers less than once per month. Add to that the fact that the majority of cohabiting relationships in the US break up within 2 years. So, out-of-wedlock births (even when the parents are living together at the time of the birth) almost inevitably lead to father-absent homes. This is not good for children and this is a very bad trend.

  16. Victoria says:

    It’s not irrelevant. I think everyone agrees that a stable, happy marriage is good for the kids involved (all things being equal) and a single-parent situation where the present parent is overextended and financially insecure, or where there’s a string of unstable partners in the household, is bad.

    There’s value, though, in knowing whether kids benefit more from, say, parents in a relatively high-conflict marriage versus parents in a low-stress, but legally uncommitted, relationship. Or whether parents in equally functional relationships have more emotionally healthy kids if they’re married as opposed to if they’re not. If the marriage itself is what benefits kids, then we need to be continuing (and expanding?) programs like tax breaks that encourage people to marry. But if the real benefit to children comes in the form of healthy parental relationships and marriage is irrelevant, then we need to be finding ways to help couples (married or not!) build those kinds of relationships, and maybe we as a society need to be extending some of the financial benefits of marriage to cohabiting couples in the interest of improving stability in the home.

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