Where Single Moms Are the Norm ; Though Teen Pregnancy Is Down, Single Women Account for 2 in 3 Births in Several Large US Cities

Article excerpt

The United States has seen a welcome fall in teen pregnancies and a leveling off of out-of-wedlock births, but the rates remain at crisis levels in many cities.

In eight of America's 40 largest cities, unmarried women give birth to more than 3 out of every 5 children - roughly twice the national average. And it's happening in poor urban areas already struggling with other social and economic problems.

Researchers have gained some insight into what helps reduce teen pregnancy, but they don't yet know what programs, if any, can influence women in their twenties. These older women, recent census figures show, account for two-thirds of out-of-wedlock births.

But time is running out to find out. Next year, Congress must reauthorize the 1996 welfare-reform act that made reducing nonmarital births a top priority. While several experiments are under way, they're barely old enough to evaluate properly.

"I don't think there's a lot of known information about what works," says Andrea Kane, outreach coordinator for the Brookings Institution's welfare-reform initiative in Washington.

The attention is long overdue. Out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed in the past half-century. In 1940, only 3.8 percent of American women were not married when they gave birth. By 1994, that rate had climbed to 32.6 percent. Since then, the rate has hovered around 33 percent, although it remains alarmingly high in some cities, according to census data released last month.

Take Baltimore. More than 3 out of 4 residents who gave birth there in the past 12 months were unmarried, according to census estimates. That was tops among America's 40 largest cities and three times the rate of Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, which ranked near the bottom of the list.

Income and education levels probably explain much of the difference, experts suggest. For example, Baltimore ranks among the 10 large cities with the lowest median household incomes and the smallest share of residents with college degrees, according to census estimates. Austin and San Francisco rank near the top in both categories.

Baltimore also has one of the highest proportions of African- American residents. Historically, unmarried black women have given birth at much higher rates than unmarried whites, demographers point out. While that rate has fallen dramatically since 1970 - and risen even more dramatically for whites - African-American women are still twice as likely to give birth out of wedlock than are their white counterparts, according to a study last year for the National Center for Health Statistics.

Marital prospects

In all, 7 of the top 10 cities for out-of-wedlock births also rank in the 10 cities with the highest percentages of black residents, according to census data. …