Highlights of a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)

Births to Unmarried Mothers: United States, 1980-92

Vital and Health Statistics Series 21, No. 53

For Release June 6, 1995

American women become sexually active at earlier ages and marry later, increasing both the risk and the hazard of unmarried childbearing in the United States. One of every three births in America is to an unmarried mother. In 1992 there were 1.2 million births to unmarried women, almost double the number in 1980. The rate of unmarried childbearing has increased rapidly since 1980, with the recent increase most pronounced for white women aged 20 years and over. Still, rates of nonmarital childbearing are highest among black women and the overwhelming majority of all teenage mothers — 70 percent — are not married. Unmarried mothers tend to have poorer birth outcomes than married mothers because they are disproportionately young, poorly educated, and more likely to be poor.

A comprehensive analysis of the trends in births to unmarried mothers and the health aspects of childbearing by unmarried women has been prepared by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Data highlights

  • The rate of nonmarital childbearing rose 54 percent from 29.4 births per 1,000 unmarried women aged 15-44 years in 1980 to 45.2, the rate in both 1991 and 1992.
  • In 1980 one in five births was nonmarital; in 1992, almost one in three births (30.1 percent) were to unmarried women. This reflects not only the rise in unmarried births but the declining fertility among married women.
  • Birth rates for unmarried women have risen sharply for women in all age groups, but particularly among women in the 20 years and over age group. Consequently, only 30 percent of unmarried women giving birth in 1992 were teenagers.
  • Birth rates for unmarried black women have consistently been higher than for unmarried white women. Over the past decade, however, the disparity by race has declined dramatically due primarily to the rising rate for white women. Since 1980 the nonmarital birth rate for white women rose 94 percent and the rate for black women increased only 7 percent during that same time period.
  • In 1992 births rates for unmarried Hispanic women (95.3 per 1,000) were higher than for black women (86.5) and white women (35.2).
  • Differences by race and Hispanic origin primarily reflect differences in education, income, access to health care, marriage patterns, sexual activity, and contraceptive use.
  • Unmarried mothers are more likely than their married counterparts to be poorly educated. Among unmarried women aged 20 years and over, women with less than a high school diploma are at least three times as likely to have a baby as unmarried women with some college.
  • Unmarried mothers and their babies have a generally less favorable health status, even when differences in age and education are taken into account. Unmarried mothers are less likely to receive adequate prenatal care and less likely to gain adequate weight during pregnancy. Unmarried mothers are twice as likely to smoke while pregnant and, among mothers aged 20 years and over, about twice as likely to have a low birthweight baby. Low birthweight is a major predictor of infant illness and mortality.

The source of data for this report is the certificate of live birth filed for each child born in the United States and reported to NCHS through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program.

For more information or to arrange an interview with the author, please contact NCHS, Office of Public Affairs (301) 458-4800, or via e-mail at paoquery@cdc.gov.

No. 53. Births to Unmarried Mothers: United States, 1980-92. 55 pp. (PHS) 95-1931. GPO stock number 017-022-01299-5 price $4.50 [PDF – 399 KB]