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1983: Dip in Birth Rate, Rise in Unwed Mothers

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In 1983, the nation recorded its first annual decline in births since 1975 but its highest rate of childbearing by unmarried women on record, according to a report released last month by the National Center for Health Statistics.

According to the center, 20 percent of all women giving birth in the United States in 1983 were unmarried--a figure that is 4 percentage points higher than the 1982 figure. Fifty-three percent of the mothers in the 15- to 19-year-old age group were unmarried.

But the center's "Advance Report of Final Natality Statistics, 1983," a compilation of national birth-rate and fertility-rate statistics from 1982 to 1983, also confirmed the continuation of a trend--evident since the early 1970's--toward later childbearing.

The proportion of annual births accounted for by mothers under the age of 20 fell from 19 percent in 1975 to 14 percent in 1983, the report said. During the same period, the proportion of births occurring to mothers 30 and older rose from 17 percent to 23 percent.

The trend toward postponed childbearing also produced levels of childlessness among women in their 30's that were "higher than they have been for more than 30 years," the report noted. By Jan. 1, 1984, the center said, nearly one-quarter of U.S. women ages 30 to 34 had not had any children. In 1970, the figure was 12 percent.

Falling Rates

The center projected from "provisional data" that the year's 1 percent decline in the total number of births would be recouped by a 2 percent increase in births during 1984. But it noted 1983 decreases in both the national birth rate and the fertility rate for women of childbearing ages. Declines in the latter category, it said, were greater for black women than for white women.

Women in their 30's accounted for the only areas of increase in the birth rate during 1983. Birth-rate declines of 2 to 3 percent in the age groups from 15 to 29, the report said, were larger than those of recent years and "brought the rates to levels not observed since 1978."

The nation's fertility rate--the number of live births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44--fell 2 percent in 1983, from 67 to 65. The rate among black women fell 3 percent, the report noted, from 84 to 81.

The nation's "total fertility rate" in 1983--a hypothetical measure used to calculate the future implications of current levels of fertility--was the lowest recorded since 1978, the center said, and "15 percent below the level considered necessary for a given generation to exactly replace itself in the population."

The total fertility rate for black women was "the lowest rate ever observed," the report said. For white women, the rate was the lowest since 1979.

The report's statistical findings are based on information from all birth certificates in 46 states and a 50-percent sample of birth certificates filed in Arizona, California, Delaware, Georgia, and the District of Columbia.

Unmarried Mothers

The birth rate for unmarried women grew most among women ages 15 to 17 and 35 to 39, the nchs noted, with both age groups showing a 3 percent increase.

The proportion of unmarried mothers in the 15- to 19-year-old age group varied widely by race, the statistics show. Nearly 40 percent of white mothers in that age group were unmarried, compared with nearly 90 percent of black mothers. For "all races other than white," 85 percent of 15- to 19-year-old mothers were unmarried.

But the center noted "a sharp reduction" over the past decade in the disparity between rates of childbearing by unmarried black and white women of all ages. There has been, it said, a "steady increase in the rate for unmarried white women simultaneous with a general decline in the rate for unmarried black women."

Additional Findings

Other nchs statistics show that:

Of the 3.6 million babies born in 1983, 489,286--or 13.6 percent--were born to women between the ages of 15 and 19. The majority of new babies--2.3 million, or 63 percent--were born to women 20 to 29 years old.

About 10 percent of the babies born to teen-age mothers had a low birth weight, as compared with 5.9 percent for mothers in the 25- to 34-year-old age group. The percentage of low-birth-weight babies among black teen-age mothers was almost double that for white mothers 15 to 19.

Low-birth-weight babies--those weighing under 5.5 pounds--have a higher risk of illness and other neonatal complications than normal-weight babies and are more often born to mothers who lack regular medical care during their pregnancies.

Approximately 43 percent of all first-time mothers in 1983 had completed 12 years of schooling. By comparison, 78 percent of all women who gave birth in 1983 had finished high school--the same level as in 1982.--msr

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