Monday, July 02, 2007

Poll Finds Negative Views of Unwed Motherhood

Today's USA Today reports on a new Pew Research Center survey that finds younger Americans attaching less stigma to out-of-wedlock parenting and cohabitation, although an overall majority still holds negative views of unmarried parenting. Here's more from the article:

Younger adults tend to worry less about the stigma attached to having a child or living together without being married, finds new research that shows a generation gap in behaviors related to marriage, divorce, parenthood and cohabitation.

A Pew Research Center survey released today, says these younger adults are driving higher rates of out-of-wedlock births and living together without marriage.

Using U.S. Census data and the responses from a telephone survey of 2,020 adults conducted last spring, Feb. 16-March 14 Pew reports show that the rate of non-marital childbearing has ballooned to 36.8% of all births in 2005, from 5.3% in 1960. As recently as the early 1990s, only about a third of these non-marital births were to cohabiting women; now it's about half of all out-of-wedlock births. Nearly half of adults (47%) in their 30s and 40s have lived in a cohabiting relationship; among those ages 30-49, about one-third have....

Teenage unwed mothers, who were often racial and ethnic minorities, made up most non-marital births in earlier decades. Today, experts say, it is white women in their 20s and 30s, who often live with the baby's father. The Pew study reports that the percentage of births to unmarried white mothers rose from 2.3% in 1960 to 35.8% in 2004.

"Birthrates for unmarried women have been going up for people in their 30s and probably in their 40s as well, while they've been going down for teenagers. This phenomenon has really shifted on us and many people don't realize it," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in Pew's research.

Cherlin says some of the increase — though a small part — can be attributed to more women having children outside of a relationship.

"There certainly are more middle-class women in their 30s who are having a child without marrying because no partner is in sight," he says. "But in the national picture, they are still a modest-sized group...."

Even though single motherhood is more common than in the past, the Pew study also found that public opinion about unmarried childbearing remains strongly negative. It is the one social change that "drew a thumbs-down from more than half of respondents," the survey says.

The study found 71% of those surveyed believe more births to unwed women are a "big problem;" 44% believe unmarried women having children is "always or almost always wrong;" 66% say single women having children is bad for society; and 59% believe unmarried couples having children is bad for society.

Social science surveys like this are fascinating. As one who's married-with-children, and also one whose classes address issues of gender equality and family structure, I take interest in trends in family change and how they affect the political process and societal outcomes. As cited in the article, more women are middle class, which gives them the resources to consider child-rearing outside of traditional social structures (some women also out-earn the husbands, which creates additional changes in the dynamics of childrearing and family life).

That said, I think the survey's finding on overall support for childraising within the traditional family unit is significant. The family remains the key organic building block of society, and the continued importance in public opinion of childbearing within the marriage institution provides a conservative base for the continued health of American civil society.

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