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Opinion

June 24, 2014

For millennials, out-of-wedlock childbirth is the norm

NEW YORK — Instead of continuing to talk about ways to reduce the number of single mothers in the United States, maybe it's time to think of ways we can make their lives a little easier.

Because so far as prevention goes, it's starting to feel like that ship has sailed for now. This month brings us yet another reminder that, for young Americans, having children outside of marriage is very much "the new normal," as The New York Times once put it. In a study tracking the first wave of millennials to become parents, a team from Johns Hopkins University recently found that 64 percent of mothers gave birth at least once out of wedlock. Almost one-half had all of their children without ever exchanging vows.

The findings echo a separate study from 2012, which found that, among women under 30, more than one-half of all births happened outside of marriage. This new paper analyzes results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which began interviewing thousands of young Americans annually starting in 1997. Using data from 2011, when the subjects were between the ages of 26 and 31, it reveals a by-now familiar story about how, when it comes to raising family, America is really two separate countries divided by education. Four-year college graduates waited until later in their 20s to have children, and were typically married by the time they did; less than one-third gave birth out of wedlock. Women without a bachelor's degree had children earlier, and were typically unmarried — 74 percent gave birth at least once without a husband.

Not all of those mothers were single: Many were living with partners. Among high school graduates, for instance, 28 percent of children were born to cohabitating couples. Combine that with the 41 percent of children born to married couples, then most babies were born into two-parent households.. The problem is that cohabitating couples don't always last. Their relationships fare better than parents who aren't living together at all, but frequently the mother ends up raising a child alone.

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