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Growth through Natural Increase: Births, Educational and Racial Differences in Birthrates

American subcultures, wedlock births, married black women, sexual experimentation, Unmarried couples

Fertility rates declined among all major groups of Americans in the last decades of the 20th century, in keeping with the trend since the late 18th century. One reason for this trend has been the increase in educational opportunities for women. Women’s educational levels affect births. Most college-educated women who have children wait until their 30s to do so, after finishing their education and establishing a career. Other women begin bearing children earlier and continue bearing children later in life.

The education level of parents also affects childbearing. The children of college-educated parents are less likely to be sexually active at age 15 than the children of those who have not completed high school.

Births outside marriage among American subcultures differ significantly. From the 1930s through the 1970s, the rates for unmarried white women giving birth remained below 10 percent. This rate increased, but was still under 20 percent in the 1980s. It increased in the 1990s, reaching 26.7 percent in 1999. The rate of black children born out of wedlock in 1999 was 68.8 percent; this is high in part because married black women have few children. A desire to enhance the opportunities available to their children and fears about the discrimination their children might face inhibit many married African American couples. Unmarried couples of all races tend to be more impulsive about sexuality and childbearing. The percentage of births to unmarried Hispanics in 1999 was 42.1 percent.

Better-educated women and men of all groups—black, white, or Hispanic—are more likely to bear children within marriage than individuals with less education. Black women, married and unmarried, have a far higher rate of unintended or unwanted pregnancies than other groups, more than half of all pregnancies. This may indicate less access to suitable birth control technologies. Hispanic women have the largest number of children among major groups—3.1 children on average, compared to 2.2 for blacks, 2.1 for Native Americans, 2.1 for Asians and Pacific Islanders, and 2.1 for whites.

The causes for the recent changes in births and marriage are poorly understood. But because births outside of marriage, early sexual experimentation, and early childbearing are so strongly linked to educational levels, and because educational achievement is itself linked to wealth, the rise in out-of-wedlock births may be a function of the changing U.S. economy. Since the 1970s the industrial base of the United States has been eroding, and with it many good-paying jobs. In 1979 the typical middle-class worker earned $498 a week. In 1995 he or she earned $475 a week (adjusted for inflation). Income for the poorest fifth of Americans fell .78 percent a year between 1973 and 1993. Industrial employment has been replaced by service work, which rewards highly educated, computer-savvy workers well but which tends to pay the majority of workers low wages. Rapid economic change, financial stress, and anxiety about the future may undermine the ability of couples to form more stable unions and have children within marriage.

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