Births For Unmarried Black Women Have Been Dropping For Decades

[Published on Alas, TADA, and on Family Scholars Blog.]

The Heritage Foundation thinks that births to unmarried Black women is a problem that just keeps getting worse:

[The out-of-wedlock birth rate] remained relatively low until the onset of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the early 1960s. Then the black out-of-wedlock birth rate skyrocketed, doubling in little more than a decade from 24.5 percent in 1964 to 50.3 percent in 1976. It continued to rise rapidly, reaching 70.7 percent in 1994. Over the next decade, it declined slightly but then began to rise again, reaching 72.4 percent in 2008.

This is reported in Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty, by Robert Rector, right under a gigantic graph labeled “Growth of Unwed Childbearing by Race.”

To be fair to Heritage, a similar statistic is given in The State of Our Unions 2009 (see pages 99, 102-103 – pdf link), published by IAV and edited by Bradford Wilcox and FSB’s own Elizabeth Marquardt. And, in fact, this is what pretty much everyone reports (and what I therefore used to believe). “The rates increased for all races, but they remained highest and rose fastest for Hispanics and blacks,” reports The Washington Post. Another article bears the headline “Babies Increasingly Born to Unwed Mothers.”

The picture painted by this statistic is clear: More and more black babies are born to single mothers, every year. That picture is completely false, and paints an unfairly negative picture of black family trends.

The “black out-of-wedlock birth rate” is calculated by asking what percentage of all black babies born, are born to an unmarried mother. (“Unmarried” mother is a bit of a tricky statistic, since it would include some women who are living with their child’s father, but aren’t married; and also some lesbian couples. However, imperfect as the statistical definition is, it’s what we have available to use.)

This number has indeed been “skyrocketing,” as Mr. Rector put it, for decades — because the birth rate among married black women has been dropping, not because the birth rate among unmarried black women has gone up. In fact, the birthrate among unmarried black women has been dropping – just not dropping as fast as the birthrate among married black women. As Ta-Nahisi Coates reports:

The basic conclusion is that the birth rate for unmarried black women is–and has been–declining. In 1970 the birth rate for unmarried black women was 96 per 1,000. In 1980, it was 87.9. In 2005 it was 60.6. There is a huge spike in the late 1980s, but the overall trend is clear–the birth rate for unmarried black women has been declining for almost 40 years.

I believe that on average, it’s better for children of any race to be born and raised in two-parent homes (or perhaps more than two). Parenting is hard, supporting a household is hard, and for one person to do the entire thing herself is frequently too much. The fewer one-parent homes we have, the better off our culture is. (This isn’t to deny that some particular households aren’t better off as single-parent households.)

If that’s true, then this graph shows really good news about trends in black families:

But that’s not the graph we see in reports and news articles. Why not?

Every time a new report or article using the “black out-of-wedlock birth rate” gives the false impression that birth rates for unmarried black women are rising, the wrong questions are asked. Instead of asking “what’s going right in black culture, and how can we make sure this trend continues,” we’re assuming that nothing goes right, nothing works, and everything that anyone’s tried has been a failure.

So why have birth rates been declining among black women? I don’t know think there’s any single cause, but I suspect this is one factor:

From 1967 to the present, black girls who graduate high school have been more and more likely to go on to college, except for a period in the 1980s when the odds of college attendance flatlined for a while.

People in general make decisions rationally (although imperfectly). One of the best ways to predict if a young, unmarried woman is going to become a mother, is to ask how attractive her alternatives to motherhood are. What would she give up by having a baby? For women who aren’t giving up much, early single motherhood can be the rational choice.

So the declining birth rate among single black women is good news in two ways. First of all, it means fewer children are being born into households where only one parent will be there to take care of them. And second of all, it may reflect that black girls and women generally have more opportunities today than in the past.

This entry posted in crossposted on TADA, Families structures, divorce, etc, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

18 Responses to Births For Unmarried Black Women Have Been Dropping For Decades

  1. 1
    Dianne says:

    I’d be curious to know what percentage of births to “unwed mothers” in either race are births in versus out of committed relationships. Any data on that anywhere?

  2. 2
    Ben David says:

    What are the absolute numbers of babies?

    Everything in this article is stated in terms of “rates per thousand”.

    If the number of unmarried black women increases, the rate can drop while the actual number of babies born out of wedlock increases.

    Are there any data counting actual births?

  3. 3
    RonF says:

    So the rate is decreasing. It’s still way, way too high.

  4. 4
    Dianne says:

    @3 What’s your proposal for dealing with the problem?

  5. 5
    RonF says:

    Good question. We’d have to figure out why unmarried women – especially unmarried women who are not in a position to support their children unaided – have babies. I followed that thread about why having babies early is the rational choice for poor young black girls – it would be worth doing some rigorous research on those.

    One factor that I can agree on with most posters here is that the educational opportunities for all young Americans must be improved. Children will not deliberately have children if they have better alternatives. That in part means that kids need access to schools that are properly equipped and staffed and that are safe. That the State can do. It also means that the kids must have an home environment that values and supports education. That the State cannot do. That is action that has to be taken at the community, church and family level.

    That’s not to say that State action cannot improve this situation. State action can help kids who have a home environment that supports education but do not have adequate schools. It will also help those kids who do not have such a home environment but who have enough motivation that they will at least partly overcome such a home environment on their own. But I’ve seen plenty of kids who live in an area with good schools and who go to school every day with at least reasonable food, clothing, etc. who still screw up school. I know that State action alone will not suffice for many kids. There have to be cultural changes as well.

  6. 6
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Let me ask a meta-question: how (if at all) is it possible to

    -talk about these birth rates

    -make a judgment about some or all of them (whether “not ideal” or “fine” or “bad” or “problematic” or “good” or “low” or “high” or whatever)

    -discuss ways to change some or all of them, no matter how indirect

    and NOT end up supporting* eugenics, supporting* racism against black women, or something similar?

    I don’t understand how.

    *or being perceived as supporting

  7. 7
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Because I look at it like this:

    One cannot (obviously) support the straight-up approach:

    The “simple but immoral” solution (which I am mentioning only to discard it!!) is to reduce birth rate by directly going after pregnancy and birth issues. As things go it’s relatively cheap to provide low cost BC, abortion, and sterilization. And those things tend to reduce birth rates in populations, even without specific financial incentives to use them.

    Alas posters (including me, though I haven’t posted on that issue) seem to agree that selectively providing those things to poor black women or men (with the goal of reducing their birth rate) is very problematic, for more reasons than I can list. Eugenics = bad.

    But isn’t it the goal that is the problem? If so, then stepping away from directness doesn’t help.

    Saying “This population has a very high birth rate, but we can’t selectively aim BC at the population. Let’s try increasing the education availability, in the hopes that (a) people will sign up; (b) those people will eventually get educated; and (c) those educated people will then have lower birth rates. We’ll know in 10 years if it works.”
    is different in form but not the underlying belief.

    So I sometimes feel that these conversations are impossible to have honestly. The only solution is for everyone involved to pretend that they aren’t thinking about the elephant in the room:

    Education is a good thing for all, and if our education program just so happens to be targeted at black women and just so happens to have the effect of lowering their birth rate, well, isn’t that a coincidence! Because we would of course never hold a belief that a minority female population should have fewer kids, and we would of course never exercise our power to reduce it. That would be wrong!

  8. 8
    RonF says:

    My objective is not to reduce the number of black births. My objective is to reduce the number of births to unmarried women. The original post focused on births to unmarried black women, so that’s what the context of my comments were. But in the context of your comment let me broaden my focus to say that even the rate of births to unmarried white women is undesirable. There’s plenty of white kids who live in areas where the schools are unsafe and ill-equipped. Proportionately fewer than black kids? Likely. But still undesirable, and an ill service to those children.

    But it’s all about kids being born to single mothers from my viewpoint. If a woman is married to a man and the two of them together can support their children without asking me for any more tax money than to support the schools, then fine; let such a black woman have 9 kids if she and her husband want (I have an aunt who did just that). Not a problem. But have one kid – just one – without the resources to support him or her and start demanding that the State substitute for the missing parent and we have a bad situation that’s much more likely to turn out badly for that child and society as a whole than if the mother was married.

  9. 9
    Dianne says:

    @Ron. Just to clarify, is your main concern really women who are not married or women who don’t have the resources to raise a child without large amounts of public assistance? They are by no means identical, although trying to raise children without a partner does increase the odds of raising the child in poverty. Note also that unmarried is not the same as alone: For example, the majority of Scandinavian children are born outside of marriage but only a small number are born to women without resources or partner/family support. (If you want a more personal example, I’m an umarried mother. I’ve been unmarried to one specific person for over 15 years. He’s the one that takes the kid to school in the morning. **Sigh.** I wish I had tenure too.)

  10. 10
    RonF says:

    Just to clarify, is your main concern really women who are not married or women who don’t have the resources to raise a child without large amounts of public assistance?

    From a taxpayer viewpoint, the latter. From a moral viewpoint the former is a concern as well. I realize that a) just because a couple is married doesn’t mean that they will work together to raise children and can afford to raise children, and b) just because a couple is not married doesn’t mean that they won’t work together to raise children and cannot afford to do so. But the tendencies are that taken as groups married couples are more likely to stay together and work together to raise children than non-married couples are. An unmarried woman with children is more likely to end up raising those children alone and requiring public assistance in doing so than a woman who is married to their father.

  11. 11
    Dianne says:

    But the tendencies are that taken as groups married couples are more likely to stay together and work together to raise children than non-married couples are.

    I’ve heard this claim too, but I’m not sure about the data backing it. Do you have any references? It also occurred to me that in some states, a heterosexual couple who lives together for a certain amount of time is considered married. So maybe “unmarried” couples don’t last because those that do change category? Finally, I’d be interested to see how often married versus unmarried couples with children break up. Do unmarried couples who make the commitment of having a child together still break up more often than married couples? (Note: All of this is not to say that you’re wrong. You may well be right. Just that I’m not sure of the evidence.)

  12. 12
    mythago says:

    But have one kid – just one – without the resources to support him or her and start demanding that the State substitute for the missing parent and we have a bad situation that’s much more likely to turn out badly for that child and society as a whole than if the mother was married.

    Wait, I’m confused. Is the issue that the parents are unmarried at the time of the birth, or that argh bargle taxpayer funding? Because if we’re just worried about the tax burden, then we shouldn’t care about whether the parents are married, only whether the child will receive adequate support; a rich unmarried mother is better than two poor married parents who will be leeching our precious taxily fluids with EIC, food stamps and so on to pay for their kid.

    Dianne, it’s likely true, but the issue is not that a marriage license is by itself magical; marriage is associated with a whole lot of factors that have to do with stability in general.

    This is all an argument for same-sex marriage, by the way. ;)

  13. 13
    Dianne says:

    This is all an argument for same-sex marriage, by the way. ;)

    Of course it is. There is no argument for marriage that is not also for same-sex marriage. I’m equivocal about opposite-sex marriage because of its history-some of the past of marriage is too nasty for me to feel comfortable with it, even if the laws have all been changed. OTOH, same-sex marriage, lacking the gender power differential, is more about love and one-stop-shopping to become each other’s official next of kin.

    it’s likely true, but the issue is not that a marriage license is by itself magical; marriage is associated with a whole lot of factors that have to do with stability in general.

    That’s kind of the question. I’ve seen the claim made-frequently-that marriage per se is associated with greater stability because people who are married think of themselves as part of a single unit more than people living together or because they are more likely to be making a definite committment or perhaps because ritual changes people. I’ve never seen any data to back any of these claims, including the simplest one, ie that marriages are more stable than non-marital relationships.

  14. 14
    RonF says:

    There’s an essential difference between marriage and living together. When two people live together, they’ve either implictly or explictly made a commitment to each other. It’s a bargain/agreement/compact between them. Barring the generation of children it involves no one else. But a marriage is a compact among two people and the State, the latter standing in representation of society at large. That’s why a marriage takes place in public and is signed off on by a representative of the State and witnesses standing in for society. From the beginning the promises made are not just to each other, it’s to everyone.

  15. 15
    mythago says:

    Again, RonF, the marriage itself is only part of it; factors that may lead to unmarried births, parental abandonment, etc. are also factors that work against people getting or staying married.

    Additionally, marriage comes with the presumption of paternity, which is a boon to both caretaking and child-support issues. “It ain’t mine” doesn’t go quite as far when the baby is your wife’s.

  16. 16
    nobody.really says:

    I’m an umarried mother. I’ve been unmarried to one specific person for over 15 years.

    Look, there’s just no easy way to say this, so I’m going to just say it: As you may have suspected – you’re not the only one he’s unmarried to. There’s another woman. Several, actually. Ok, let’s just spit it out: by my count, he’s been unmarried to roughly six billion people; probably more. And he’s been unmarried to some of them for longer than 15 years.

    I’m sorry. I just thought that it was time you knew.

  17. 17
    Dianne says:

    I’m sorry. I just thought that it was time you knew.

    It’s ok. It’s an open relationship: I’ve been unmarried to billions of people for the last 40some years too. But I only share a lease, kid, and bank account with one of them.

  18. 18
    Dianne says:

    But a marriage is a compact among two people and the State, the latter standing in representation of society at large.

    Oh, dear. That’s quite the strong argument against same- and opposite-sex marriage.