In the 50 largest U.S. cities, an average of 43 percent of all births are by unmarried women, according to the 1997 Kids Count Special Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Nationally, the percentage of total births by unmarried women increased from 28 percent in 1990 to 32.4 percent in 1997.
It's the little tykes who suffer, some researchers say. Children born into a single-mother household "are more likely to drop out of school, to divorce or separate, and to be dependent on welfare," says the Casey study. Even if a marriage ends, children born into a married-couple family are better off. The poverty rate for single-parent families headed by a never-married mother is 55 percent, compared to 35 percent for families headed by a divorced or separated mother. And the infant mortality rate of children born to an unmarried mother is almost twice that of children born to married mothers (10.5 deaths per 1,000 live births compared to 5.6, respectively).
The uptick in unwed motherhood is largely due to a decline in shotgun marriages, which fell sharply in the 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Increased premarital cohabitation has also played a role. Between 1990 and 1994, 39 percent of births by unmarried women were to cohabiting women, compared to 29 percent between 1980 and 1984, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. Most of the increase was found among non-Hispanic white women.