Leaving on a Jet Plane:Illegitimacy Trends and the Nation’s Children

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The late senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, famously and controversially predicted in 1970 that out-of-wedlock births in black families would soar and that the trend would soon follow in white families. Over subsequent decades, Senator Moynihan (and others) charted the illegitimacy rates that skyrocketed at a rate of almost one percent each year from the 70s to the 90s. Moynihan described the illegitimacy trend line as “like a jet plane taking off.”


Looking at the trends in the 70s and 80s, Moynihan quite reasonably predicted that by the year 2004, half of all births would be illegitimate.

Researchers (and observers alike) were, understandably, distressed at the impact the trends were having on women and children indeed, it was Moynihan’s view that fatherless families were producing “chaos” in American culture and that nothing like the disintegration of the two-parent family had ever happened in two thousand years of recorded history.

We can all be grateful that Moynihan’s forecasting skills, in this instance, weren’t exactly on target the overall ratio of out-of-wedlock births, while far too high and with alarming ramifications, is 34% below worst predictions. There are, however, pockets of the population where illegitimacy is over 50% (for instance, among teens 80% of all births are illegitimate and among 20-24 year olds it is 52% and climbing) and areas of our country (inner cities) where illegitimacy is far above 50%. These illegitimacy rates are significantly higher than the much-maligned “Leave-it-to-Beaver” decade of 1950s when the ratio averaged less than 4.5%.

Things have started to get a bit better since the mid-90s. From 1994 to the present, the growth in the percentage of unmarried births to all women has decreased to less than one-fifth of the average increase seen in the 1980s. For teens, the percentage has increased from 76% in 1994 to 80% in 2002. But the steepest growth since 1994 is among the 20 to 24 year old age groups, where the percentage of births to unmarried women has increased from 45% to 52%. Also worth noting, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births has leveled off among black teens and all black women while among white teens and white women, the trend continues to climb. Since Welfare Reform legislation was instituted in 1996, there has been significant improvement in the percent of children living in mother-only type families for blacks (54% down to 48%) and Hispanics (29% down to 25%) from 1996 and 2002 though for non-Hispanic whites there has been no similar improvement. This reflects in part the fact that the percentage of births to unmarried women peaked for black women in 1994 (at 70.4%) and has declined since then (down to 68.2%) whereas the percentage for white women continues to climb (25.4% in 1994 and up to 28.5 in 2002). Sadly, this part of Moynihan’s prediction continues to materialize.

Percent Births to Unmarried Women by Race Year All White Nonwhite Black 1940 3.8 1.8 13.7 – 1950 4.0 1.7 16.8 – 1960 5.3 2.3 21.6 – 1970 10.7 5.7 34.9 37.6 1980 18.4 11.2 49.8 56.1 1990 28.0 20.4 57.1 66.5 1994 32.6 25.4 59.6 70.4 2000 33.2 27.1 55.6 66.7 2002 34.0 28.5 54.5 68.2

So, the good news is that even though the trend line that Moynihan projected forward certainly looked like it was going to shoot right past 50%, it hasn’t. Further, while the overall unwed birth ratio is still climbing, unwed birthrates for some ages and population groups have begun to decline.

While we can celebrate this progress, we must also acknowledge that the problem is far from resolved the fact remains that today a third of all children and more than two-thirds of black children are born out of wedlock. With the increase in cohabitation today (up nearly 1000% since 1960), 40% of all children will spend some of their childhood with a cohabiting couple. With divorce still hovering at around 50% of all marriages, the proportion of children now living with their married parents is less than 70% (down from 85% in 1970). Currently, the percentage of time that a person spends living with a spouse and children is at the lowest point in U.S. history in 1960, people spent 62% of lives with their spouse and children; by 1985, that percentage had dropped to 43%.

It is little wonder that there has been such a dramatic decline in the well being of children children in non-intact families have roughly twice the risk of social and behavioral problems compared with children in married-parent families. Far too many children today live with problems that researchers have identified as associated with broken families emotional upheaval and struggles with anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other psychosocial difficulties.

One of the best things that we can do for children today is to strengthen marriage and families. At a time when everyone is concerned about the nation’s children, one of the best things that we can do is to take steps to create a marriage-friendly culture where healthy marriages and families are encouraged and supported.

Nothing is more important on the domestic agenda than to work assiduously to get that illegitimacy jet plane trending downward as soon as possible.

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