WASHINGTON – More than one baby in three was born to a single mom in Maryland in 2003, a proportion that was virtually unchanged from the year before, according to preliminary federal figures.
The National Center for Health Statistics said that births to unmarried women climbed from 25,516 in 2002 to 26,050 in 2003, which accounted for 34.8 percent of all births in the state in 2003.
That level was slightly higher than the proportion of births to unmarried women nationally, which rose from 34 percent in 2002 to 34.6 percent in 2003, the center said.
“Married women have postponed having children in such large numbers” in the last few decades nationwide, said Andrew Cherlin, professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “Single women aren’t postponing it as much.”
He said some unmarried adults may not see the gain in waiting to have children, and the split in attitudes is particularly enhanced along economic fault lines.
“Many young adults, especially among the poor, don’t see a husband riding in shining armor” to rescue them soon, he said.
Middle-class women, however, at least can envision themselves getting married some time in the near future and see marriage with children as a path that may work, he said.
Kelvin Pollard, a senior demographer at the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, said many women who are having children out-of-wedlock are in relationships, just not marital ones. Both women and men have been marrying later, but may still decide to start a family, he said.
“Thirty years ago, people equated having a family with being married,” Pollard said. “Increasingly, women are separating the two — they don’t necessarily have to get married.”
In Maryland, the percentage of births to single mothers has fluctuated. But while it stood at 29.6 percent in 1990 and 34.6 percent in 2000, Cherlin said the state and the nation have been on an overall “high plateau,” since the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. For that reason, he said, slight year-to-year changes like those from 2002 to 2003 may not be that significant.
“What is meaningful is how much the share of children to unmarried mothers has skyrocketed over the past several decades,” Cherlin said.
The National Center for Health Statistics, which produced the birth numbers, said the proportion of unmarried births among non-Hispanic blacks fell slightly, from 59.3 percent in 2002 to 58.6 in 2003.
For all other racial groups, particularly Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, the share of out-of-wedlock births grew over the same period.
But some observers were reluctant to call the decline among black women significant.
“African Americans are impacted the most negatively,” said Bronwyn Mayden, executive director of Campaign for Our Children, which works to prevent teen births.
Since many African Americans live in poverty, Mayden said, black children who grow up in a single-parent household can face even greater difficulties.
“Kids are going to be the ones that bear the brunt,” she said. “Kids start off life behind everyone else, and unfortunately, remain behind.”
While marriage is promoted by some government and advocacy groups as a way to improve the financial welfare for children, one Baltimore official said it is not necessarily the best solution, particularly for teen parents.
“It’s traditionally not a time to make long-term commitments,” said Margaret Williams, executive director of Friends of the Family, a nonprofit that coordinates family support centers throughout the state.
“We are focused on the healthy well-being of the children, but marriage may or may not help with that,” she said.
-30- CNS 04-01-05