Breaking through the Wilcoxian ceiling of nonmarital births

Finishing off right-wing family think-tank recognition week.

In the first post I pointed out the right-wing foundations gave their academic and think-tankian foot-soldiers more than $5 million over three years to prop up conservative family ideals. In the second post I ridiculed Brad Wilcox’s unsupported assertion that “the nation’s retreat from marriage may have bottomed out.” He based that on the fact that marriage rates did not fall in 2010 or 2011 after the very steep drop in 2009. (Thank G-d for small favors.)

Today is a quick one to point out the even worse distortion in the second half of Wilcox’s sunny-side post. He wrote:

In the wake of the Great Recession, nonmarital childbearing has accounted for 41 percent of all births from 2008 to the present. This is the first time in at least 40 years that the percentage of children being born outside of wedlock has remained stable for five years.

That kind of trend-line bottom feeding reminds me of the basketball announcer’s patter as the player steps to the free-throw line: “He’s only 71 percent from the line on the season, but he’s three-for-four so far tonight.”

Anyway, it’s worse than that because of the way demography works. To give away the conclusion: after 2008 births shifted dramatically to older women as younger women’s fertility rates fell. Older women have lower unmarried childbearing rates. So the overall unmarried-birth rate didn’t rise much even as the unmarried-birth rate in each age group continued to rise.

You gotta love demography. Here are the trends.

Note I’m using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data, which asks a giant national sample of women each year if they’ve had a baby in the past 12 months. If gives rates a little different from the trend Wilcox showed, which was based on vital registry data submitted by the states to the CDC. I use this because it’s easy to break births out by age and marital status for each year. (Unfortunately, the IPUMS data archive I use doesn’t have the 2012 file up yet, and the Census website was shut down by Wilcox’s friend Mike Lee and his GOP colleagues.)

Anyway. First, here are the percent of births to mothers who are not married, the total and by age group, shown as changes from 2006. Wilcox is talking about the relatively flat “total” trend from 2008 to 2012.


In these data the total trend is upward for whatever reason having to do with the data source, but it doesn’t matter because the point is the same. The amazing thing is that by 2011 the total increase is smaller than the increase for each age group! That is, from 2006 to 2011, the percentage of all births that were to unmarried women increased 2.6 percent, but the increase was steeper for each specific group — up to a 4.3 percent increase for women in their 20s. (Some “enduring appeal of marriage”!)

How is this possible? It happened because births shifted from younger to older women, as we’ve known since 2011. And older women are much more likely to be married when they have children. Here’s how big that difference is:

wilcox-blog-debunk-2Twenty-something women are almost twice as likely to be unmarried when they have babies as those in their 30s and 40s. And here’s how big the change was in who was having babies from 2008 forward:

wilcox-blog-debunk-3Wow! Women in their 40s had 80,000 more babies in 2011 than they did in 2006. Those in their 20s had 134,000 less. Remember the women in their 20s were also the ones who had the steepest increase in nonmarital births rates. That means that among this group it was married women who cut their birth rates — probably deliberately postponing births because they have a biological clock buffer and could afford to hold off till (they hoped) the economy picked up. Meanwhile, the older crowd, who are on a long march toward higher birth rates, couldn’t fit that delay into their plans, so their birth rates didn’t fall.

So, back to Wilcox to see how this new evidence fits his triumphal conclusion:

But the enduring appeal of marriage for most Americans may also be part of the story for both of the trends noted above. For the vast majority of Americans, marriage remains an integral part of the American Dream. … The enduring appeal of marriage may translate into a floor for the marriage rate, insofar as a substantial share of Americans remain committed to tying the knot [see the last post], and a ceiling for the nonmarital childbearing rate, insofar as a substantial share of Americans remain committed to having their children in wedlock.

Of course a “substantial share remain committed” to marriage. No one would suggest otherwise. But the ceiling/floor story is just a (pontifical) fantasy. If the percentage of women at every age having their births while not married has continued to increase — regardless of whether the overall percentage is pretty flat for a few years — then we have to conclude the story he tells is complete baloney.

(Follow my Brad Wilcox stories under the National Marriage Project tag even though he’s blogging for the Institute for Family Studies now. As long as IFS operates out of the same post office box as Brad’s shell foundation, I’m not giving them their own tag.)

ADDENDUM: I should have discussed more the differences between these data and the vital statistics. Elizabeth Gregory, author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood, sent the following chart using the NCHS data. This appears to confirm that, although the number of births are different, the trends by age after 2008 are very similar to what I reported from the ACS data.

ADDITIONAL ADDENDUM: The ACS reports more births than NCHS, because ACS asks about the “previous 12 months,” which goes back to, for example, June for interviews in June, so that can be up to 13 months. Also, ACS respondents on average are interviewed 6 months after they gave birth, so they skew older than the NCHS data. I don’t know if these two differences account for the difference between my numbers from ACS and those sent by Elizabeth Gregory. But I think the point remains that the stall in non-marital births is probably an artifact of the shift to older-age births during the recession.


ACS births 2011: Census version (not available during shutdown); Wayback Machine version.

Census Powerpoint report on differences with NCHS: Census version (not available during shutdown); Wayback Machine version.



Filed under In the news

2 responses to “Breaking through the Wilcoxian ceiling of nonmarital births

  1. Unlearner

    Census wasn’t scheduled to put the 2012 microdata up until Oct 24, I think. Wouldn’t it be great if IPUMS could get their file up despite the hostage thing?

  2. vijay

    I know you are making some points against right wing commentators. However, unless you decompose the birth rate statistics by race/ethnicity and class (SES), the results that you plot tell me almost nothing. I feel that a course in marxism theory would be a great aid to demographers.

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