This winter, the U.S. Senate released a detailed report explaining the long term increase in unwed childbearing. The Senate report "Love, Marriage and the Baby Carriage: The Rise in Unwed Childbearing," was prepared by the vice chairman's staff of the Joint Economic Committee at the request of Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah).
The report includes detailed charts that show increases in the median age at first marriage for women and increases in the incidence of divorce. Additionally, other data shows increases in teen sexual activity between the 1960s and the early 1990s. Finally, the report provides good data on the decline in shotgun marriages. Overall, the significant increase in the number of sexually active unmarried people, coupled with declining birthrates among married couples explains why a higher percentage of children are born to unwed mothers.
Another key factor that has contributed to the rise in the out-of-wedlock birthrate is the decline in the abortion rate. Here the report's analysis could have been stronger. The report credits greater societal tolerance of out-of-wedlock childbearing. There may be some truth to this. However, a key factor in the 50 percent decline in the U.S. abortion rate since 1980 is that a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are being carried to term. Pro-life efforts to enact protective laws, shift public opinion, and provide for the material needs of women through pregnancy resource centers all deserve credit. The report should have made mention of this.
Additionally, the report overstates the role that greater affluence played in the increase in out of wedlock births. It is true that many women have delayed marriage to pursue lucrative career opportunities. It is also true that that women with high incomes can more easily afford to have children out of wedlock. However, advent of oral contraceptives played a far larger role. Oral contraceptives significantly increased the amount of non-marital sexual activity. Furthermore, oral contraceptives placed more of the burden of avoiding pregnancy on to women. As such, men felt less pressure to marry women they impregnated. While the Senate report mentions this, it could have received more emphasis.
Despite these criticisms, the report is an important one. The decline in marriage culture is a critical issue that has concerned both conservatives and liberals. In fact, during the 1990s ideologically diverse groups of social policy researchers were collaborating on projects to strengthen marriage culture. The polarizing debate over same-sex marriage that began in the early 2000s halted most of these collaborative efforts. However, some have speculated that these efforts might restart in the wake of the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision. Hopefully, the useful data and analysis contained in this new Senate report will make an important contribution to future efforts to strengthen marriage culture in the United States.