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What happened to illegitimacy? Births outside marriage now the norm

Yesterday's New York Times led with a remarkable statistic: for the first time, a majority of women under 30 who give birth are unmarried.

As the Times reports:

Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America. The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree....

Among mothers of all ages, a majority - 59 percent in 2009 - are married when they have children. But the surge of births outside marriage among younger women - nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 - is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.

The statistics were compiled by the research group Child Trends, using government data. The study highlights what is becoming more recognized and discussed: a class divide in social norms. In contrast to the overall trend, college graduates still overwhelmingly marry before having children. This divide is also the subject of Charles Murray's new book, Coming Apart, which has received a great deal of attention (more to come from me on that book in the future).

Why has this happened? It's hard to pinpoint a single cause. Clearly, declining male wages and an increase in female employment might have contributed, but it would seem simplistic to say that these economic factors are sufficient.  Other pressures need to be considered. For example, among poorer Americans, welfare policies arguably discourage marriage. And in socio-cultural terms, the institution of marriage is no longer the ideal it once was, and the stigma associated with "illegitimacy" has weakened.

The implications of this trend towards births to unwed mothers are difficult to predict. Research to date has generally found that children of unmarried women are more at risk from poverty, are less successful at school or have other problems. But separating cause and effect is difficult, and we should not necessarily assume that an increase in out-of-wedlock births will necessarily lead to an increase in social problems.

These latest data strikingly bring home that we live in a different society than even a couple of decades ago, and that our experience of that society varies quite a lot depending on our class.

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