Black Illegitimacy Rate Declines

by Steve Sailer

UPI, June 27, 2003


The good news from the federal government's preliminary birthrate data for 2002 is that the black illegitimacy rate has not only stopped getting worse, but it is now in a gradual decline. Last year, 68.0 percent of the black women who had babies were unmarried, down from 68.4 percent in 2001. The peak was 70.4 percent in 1994.

Unfortunately, if the rate keeps falling 0.4 percentage points per year, it will take 115 years to return to the 22 percent level of the early 1960s that so alarmed Johnson Administration adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he wrote a controversial report called "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action."

Ever since, the percentage of babies whose mothers are unmarried has been widely viewed as a crucial marker of social problems. University of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending told United Press International, "I don't think that high levels of fatherlessness are compatible with modern technological society for long."

More bad news is that the illegitimacy proportion is increasing in the overall population, according to the National Vital Statistics System. The U.S. percentage of new mothers who were unwed hit 33.8 percent in 2002, up from 33.5 percent in 2001. That compares to 18 percent in 1980 and only eight percent when Moynihan wrote his report.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray, author of the influential 1984 book "Losing Ground" that helped launched the welfare reform movement, said, "Illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time -- more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare, or homelessness because it drives everything else."

"The Moynihan report spawned a cottage industry of studies of father absent families," noted Harpending. They were shown to "yield sons with sharply reduced quantitative and spatial abilities, mildly increased verbal abilities, who had difficulty with pair bonding. They were much more likely to divorce, and relative to controls, they lacked drive or ambition."

Harpending was one of the first to focus attention on the impact on daughters. "Father-absent girls have higher rates of illegitimate pregnancy, earlier and more sex, higher divorce rates." He theorized that young women develop expectations about men from whether their father was a "dad or a cad." If their father was a faithful provider, they will tend to hold out for a man who lives up to that standard. When they do, that encourages young men to behave in socially responsible ways.

When young women fail to ask much of young men, Harpending argued, this in turn leads to antisocial behavior in not just their children, but in the kids' fathers as well.

Indeed, the illegitimacy rate among non-Hispanic whites (22.9 percent in 2002, up from 22.5 percent the previous year) is now higher than that 22 percent black rate of four decades ago. By way of contrast, the white illegitimacy rate was 16.9 percent in 1990, and only 1.9 percent back in 1956.

In a much-discussed 1993 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Murray predicted that the rise in illegitimacy among whites would lead to a "coming white underclass." He told UPI this week, "Essentially, affluent white Americans think of truck drivers and supermarket clerks as the lowest rung on the white socio-economic ladder ladder, and have no idea of the size of the white population that works sporadically, doesn't marry, and commits a lot crime. Living in rural America, I see more of that population than most of my fellow 'cognitive eliters,' but all my data are anecdotes."

The highest illegitimacy rates among whites are found in certain rural states such as Maine (33 percent), a state that has quietly developed a lot of social problems in recent years. Vermont, West Virginia, and Indiana follow Maine on the list.

Although Hispanics are widely considered morally traditionalist, their illegitimacy rate is almost midway between the white and black rates. It grew to 43.4 percent in 2002, up from 42.5 percent in 2001 and 37.6 percent in 1990, the first year the government kept separate statistics on the Hispanic category.

Although the black illegitimacy rate is higher, because Latinos are more fertile than blacks, there are now almost as many illegitimate children born to Hispanics (379,000 in 2002) as to blacks (402,000). The largest number of illegitimate children is still born to non-Hispanic whites (528,000), but if current trends continue, Hispanics will account for the largest number of illegitimate babies within a decade.

Using 1997 data, an NVSS study released in 2001 showed the underlying patterns of the three main groups. The frequency of pregnancies among unwed blacks (167 per 1,000 unmarried women per year) and unwed Latinos (166) were virtually the same, almost three times the white unmarried pregnancy rated (58). Unwed blacks had the most abortions (74), followed by Hispanics (57) and whites (23).

The illegitimacy rate for Hispanics born in the U.S. (48 percent in 2000) is notably higher than it is for Hispanic immigrants born in Latin America (39 percent). This suggests that the overall Latino illegitimacy rate will continue to rise as the children of today's immigrants assimilate to urban American norms.

Among Hispanics, Puerto Ricans have the highest percentage of babies born to unwed mothers, while Cubans have the lowest. The largest Latino group, Mexicans, is about average.

Northeast Asians have the lowest illegitimacy rate among Americans, with both Chinese and Japanese being under ten percent in 2000, the latest year for which data on Asians are available.

Arthur Hu, who maintains one of the largest Web pages of statistical profiles of Asian Americans notes that the low rates of Asian single births may be one of the most important "secrets" to the so-called myth of the model minority.

"These figures also correlated with higher rates of marriage and living as extended families, low rates of divorce, births delayed until after careers are established, low rates of infant mortality, and low rates of drug, alcohol or tobacco use while pregnant, even among the poor," Hu said.

Illegitimacy rates differ dramatically by state, from 17 percent in mostly Mormon Utah in 2002 to 56 percent in the mostly black District of Columbia. The next highest states are Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico (all 47 percent). Among American dependencies, the highest unwed motherhood rate is found in the inaptly named Virgin Islands -- 68 percent.

On the other hand, the black rate in Hawaii, for example, is extraordinarily low -- only 18.5 percent in 2002, barely higher than the state's white rate of 17.3 percent.

This illustrates that nowhere do blacks and whites behave more similarly than in the Aloha State. For example, the results of the National Assessment of Educational Performance tests for 4th and 8th grade reading were released last month, and the narrowest black-white test score gaps were found in Hawaii.

This level of equality is probably due to a large fraction of Hawaii's small black community having ties to the Armed Services, where a high degree of racial similarity is on display.

Most of the other states with low black illegitimacy rates are in cold weather regions like Idaho (33 percent), where the number of blacks is so small that blacks are well integrated into the mainstream community and its norms of behavior. Similarly, in these almost all white states, blacks are much more likely to marry interracially than in states with large black communities.

The highest percentage of black unwed mothers is found in Wisconsin (82 percent). The problems of Milwaukee's African-American community are given little national attention, but they are severe. Wisconsin is followed by the District of Columbia (77 percent).

In sharp contrast, Washington D.C. has the lowest non-Hispanic white illegitimacy rate (8 percent). Next are Utah (13 percent) and the heavily Catholic and Jewish New Jersey (also 13 percent).

Long the butt of jokes, New Jersey has emerged in recent years as one of the wealthiest, best educated, and most respectable of all states. Although New Jersey is popularly associated with white crime families like HBO's "The Sopranos," a 2001 study found that the imprisonment rate of its white population was the second lowest in the nation.

Hispanic illegitimacy rates are highest in states with heavily Puerto Rican or Dominican populations, such as Connecticut (62 percent).

Murray somberly summed up his views on why media concern over illegitimacy seems to have declined even while it hits a record level nationally: "The underclass has dropped out of sight -- because it's no longer in our (the cognitive elite's) face. They don't bother us like they used to (crime, graffiti, bused to our schools, and so forth). All the pathologies are about the same as before -- even crime, if one thinks in terms of criminality instead of the crime rate (in other words, the propensity of young underclass males to commit crimes). These days we've just got a lot more of them behind bars than we used to."

Steve Sailer ( is a columnist for and the film critic for The American Conservative.

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