The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act was passed by Congress in 1996. Two of the Act’s goals were to reduce out-of-wedlock births and to encourage the formation and maintenance of two parent families. Scholars and politicians generally agree that the most desirable form of family for the nurture of children is a household where both the mother and father are present. Therefore, one measure of societal decline would seem to be a decrease in the number of children born into, and raised in, two parent families.
The percentage of families with both parents present declined from 87.7% in 1960 to 85% in 1970. Except for a brief plateau in the late 1980s, the percentage continued a steady decline to 69.2% in 1993. Since that time the percentage has stayed between 68% and the 1993 level. In 1968, 10.7 of children lived only with their mother, 1.1% with their father, 2.4% with other relatives, and .4% with no relative. By 2003, those percentages were 23% with their mother, 4.6% with their father, 3% with other relatives, and 1.1% with no relative. Government policy appears to be moving even more toward the advancement of two parent families but it remains to be seen if societal values will move toward two parent homes.
The rate of divorce obviously plays a role in the rate of families without two parents.
The rate of divorces to marriages was about 25-27% from 1950-1967. That rate doubled to more than 50% ten years later in 1977. Since that time it has remained remarkably constant at about 50%. Divorce may have had some impact on the initial rise in one parent households but it does not explain it all.
Approximately 10% of all births were to unwed mothers in 1970. That ratio has been about 1 in 3 for the last ten years and is still rising. The percentage of all births to teenagers was 5.4% in 1970. That grew to 9.9% in 1994. A slight decline began in 1999 and by 2003 it was at 8.2%. The more significant trend is the percentage of births to unwed mothers twenty years old or older. The rate was 5.3% in 1970 but by 2003 that rate had increased five fold to 26.4%. It has been increasing by 0.5-1.0 percentage points a year since 1999. This increase is driven by the behavior of White women.
Abortion also has a direct impact on all of these statistics:
Approximately 80% of abortions are to unmarried women. Had those pregnancies come to full term unmarried women would have given birth to 45% of all births in 2002. That rate has been stable for almost a decade.
These statistics all suggest more sexual activity outside the marriage relationship. Finding reliable time series data on sexual activity is difficult. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been doing ongoing research on teenagers and has learned the following:
It has hard to know how these numbers compare to earlier eras. Many are inclined to think these numbers were much lower as late as the 1960s but reliable data is hard to come by. This chart shows increased sexual activity among teenagers in the seven years from 1988-1995. There was a modest decline in the rate from 1995-2002, especially for males and those under 18 years old. The CDC also says there has been an increased use in contraception. These factors have likely contributed to a reduction in the rate of unmarried teen births.