IIllegitimacy soars as the stigma against it declines
The news was not startling. The statistics were. According to federal figures, illegitimate births increased so rapidly in the 1970s that 17% of U.S. babies-‑one out of every six‑-are now born out of wedlock. In 1979, the last year for which statistics are available, an estimated 597,000 illegitimate babies were born, up 50% since 1970. Nationwide nearly a third of the babies born to white teenagers and 83% born to black teens were illegitimate.
Blacks account for more than half of all illegitimate births, but the overall black illegitimacy rate has, in fact, dropped fairly sharply over the decade. It was down 10.7%, from 95.5 births per thousand unmarried women in 1970 to 85.3 in 1979, while the white rate rose 8.6%, from 13.9 per thousand to 15.1 per thousand. Though the number of abortions has increased dramatically, among unmarried teens there are still three live births for every five abortions. Today about 1.3 million children live with teenage mothers, about half of whom are unmarried.
Pregnant 15‑year‑old in Brooklyn
"A baby is a kind of status symbol."
One obvious reason that so many women are giving birth out of wedlock is the steady decline of the social stigma against it. Girls are no longer thrown out of most high schools for getting pregnant, or packed off to a home for unwed mothers. Now whites, like blacks, are more likely to bear the child and refuse to put it adoption. In the late '60s and early 70s about 71% of unwed white pregnant teenagers and 26% of blacks married in haste before the birth of a child. By the late '70s, the number had fallen to 58% of whites and only 8% of blacks. Says Major Helen Warnock, director of a Salvation Army maternity home outside Tulsa: "Just a short time ago, getting pregnant when you weren't married was the worst mistake a 'nice' girl could make. Now having a baby is a kind of status symbol."
A major cause of illegitimacy is more sex among younger people in a pleasure-oriented society. Says Jane Murray of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which specializes in family planning: "We live in a world of tight jeans." Specialists in the field also stress the inability of teenagers to understand the use of contraceptives or the consequences of non-use. Says one Chicago girl: "Birth control pills-‑I'd heard of them. People tell me they make your hair fall out." Captain Carol Bryant, who runs the Salvation Army's Booth Memorial home for unwed mothers in Chicago, talks of the paradoxical sophistication of the 13‑ or 14‑year‑old girl who tries to "act older, just like Brooke Shields," but does not "connect intercourse with pregnancy in any meaningful way."
A recent study done at Johns Hopkins University showed that only 14% of teen‑agers seek birth control advice before their first sexual encounter. For some girls, having an illegitimate baby is a sought‑after sign of maturity. Says James Whitten, director of Harlem's Reality House: "They would prefer marriage, but if it doesn't happen, O.K., they want to show they accept responsibility." Others simply want a cuddly plaything. One pregnant 14‑year‑old said of course she knew how to care for her baby. "I'm going to dress it up real warm in little clothes, stuff like that. You know, be a mother." Says Jeanette Alejandro of Brooklyn, who dropped out of school after the eighth grade to have a baby out of wedlock: "I guess everybody wants a baby. Probably to fill in their life. They feel so bored. They got nothing to do with this life."
During the '70s, the rate of unwed births ran well ahead of the increase in the number of women of child‑bearing age. The most recent statistics are among the worst: illegitimate births for 1979 were up almost 10% over 1978. Nobody knows when, or if, the number of illegitimate births will level off. However, one thing is certain. The cost to taxpayers for illegitimate child bearing will be high. This year alone, the federal program for Aid to Families with Dependent Children is expected to exceed $7 billion.