Unwed parenting on the rise nationally, locally

Iowa seeing increase in numbers as part of social, cultural changes

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March 28, 2014 | 3:23 pm

On most days, it’s just Brittany Honer and her 5-year-old daughter, Kaitlin Ansell.

They color. They go to the park. They play with toys or read until the 22-year-old single mom takes Kaitlin to an evening day care so she can work the late shift at a Casey’s General Store in Cedar Rapids.

Their routine, for the most part, is stable, comfortable — even nice. But sometimes, Honer said, she wishes she knew more people like her — young single parents.

“I don’t have many friends anymore,” Honer said last week as her daughter busied herself coloring. “Kaitlin wants to be around other kids. And most of my friends don’t have kids.”

Despite Honer’s feeling of isolation, U.S. Census Bureau and Iowa statistics show she’s gaining company. The percent of live births to unmarried parents in Iowa swelled from 6 percent in 1969 to 35 percent in 2009, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Big increases

Some of the bigger jumps came in the 1980s and 1990s. Before the 1960s — from 1936 and 1961 — the percent of out-of-wedlock births in Iowa held steady at just 2 percent, according to state data.

“I think that it is fair to say that something or things happened — or started — in the ’60s that transformed our society, for better and for worse,” said David Hagen, outcomes data analyst for the Hawkeye Area Community Action Program.

Nationally, of the 4.1 million women ages 15 to 50 who in 2011 reported giving birth in the last year, 36 percent were unmarried, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report. That’s up from 2005, when about 31 percent of recent births were to unmarried women, according to the report.

The percent of unwed parents seems to be notably high among those in the 20 to 24 age range. As of 2011, according to the bureau, 62 percent of new parents in that group were unmarried, compared to 17 percent among parents ages 35 to 39.

“The increased share of unmarried recent mothers is one measure of the nation’s changing family structure,” said Rose Kreider, a family demographer with the bureau and one of the report’s authors.

Reasons for rise

Social shifts, along with cultural differences, are among the top reasons unmarried parenting has become more common, said University of Iowa associate sociology professor Mary Noonan.

For starters, she said, having a baby out of wedlock no longer is stigmatized like it was during and before the 1960s when expecting mothers and fathers felt pressured toward “shotgun weddings.” In today’s society, rather, women who want to have children don’t perceive marriage as a prerequisite, Noonan said.

“They just don’t see where the marriageable men are, but they want to move ahead with this other aspect of their identity,” Noonan said. “And now they feel free to do that. They don’t feel like they’ll be looked down upon.”

New parents in the 21st century might choose to stay single, or a couple might prefer to cohabitate and procreate before tying the knot, Noonan said. Some might stay together but decide never to marry.

According to the Child Trends Data Bank, 58 percent of all non-marital births from 2006 to 2010 occurred within cohabitating unions.

“There are declining marriage rates and increasing cohabitation rates,” Noonan said. “The scandalousness of it all is gone.”

Cultural trends

Cultural differences also come into play, Noonan said. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that of the new mothers who associated black or African-American, nearly 68 percent were unmarried.

Among those listed as Hispanic, 43 percent were unmarried, and for those new moms who called themselves white or Caucasian, 26 percent were unmarried, according to the report. Asians had the lowest percent of unwed mothers, with 11.3 percent.

Noonan said it’s not that new mothers in cultures with low marriage rates devalue matrimony.

“It’s almost that they overvalue it,” she said. “They view it as something you do after you have achieved success in other areas of your life.”

Sometimes women choose to stay single because they don’t think the father will be an asset or a good role model, Noonan said. That’s not necessarily a bad decision, she said, although extensive research related to children of non-married parents shows they don’t do as well in society and in school.

Noonan argued that marriage might not be as related to a child’s success as finances. Single parents often have tighter budgets, meaning their kids might not end up in the best schools and with the same opportunities.

For reasons including the reported impact on children and an increased reliance on government aid, lawmakers and service agencies continue work to lower the single parenting rate, Noonan said.

Impacts of shift

More than half of the 600 moms and dads who receive services at the Young Parents Network in Cedar Rapids are single, according to program officials. That has unplanned pregnancy prevention high on the list of services it provides to the community.

Program officials visit middle and high schools to share prevention methods and life skills, said Brian Stutzman, executive director of the organization.

“We stand aligned that kids are most functional when they have a mom and dad involved and in the equation,” Stutzman said. “We don’t see the father-absence issue as being a positive trend. They have a higher chance of poverty and higher chance of instability.”

One trend Stutzman does see as positive is the slight shift away from teenage pregnancy. He said that change might be one reason there are more single moms in their 20s.

“The first onset of pregnancy has been moving up a couple of years due to education and access to contraception,” he said. “That’s a good trend. But it does push the issue to the older young adults.”

In response, the Young Parents Network has started targeting some of its prevention methods and resources toward local colleges and universities, said program manager Crystal Hall.

“When I first started, the average age of our participants was 17 or 18,” she said. “Now we are seeing an average age of 20 to 21.”

Hall said single parents often deal with higher levels of stress and more financial issues. About 80 percent of the young parents served by the network are living at 180 percent of the federal poverty level, Hall said.

Brittany Honer said she has her own apartment and a secure job, but budget concerns continue to weigh on her.

“Financial issues are the No. 1 thing with having a kid so young,” she said. “I just can’t do college right now.”

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