, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 97-118

Historical and contemporary trends in illegitimacy

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Abstract

A review of historical trends in illegitimacy rates in European populations after 1750 finds a period of rising rates to around 1870 followed by one of declining rates to about 1940. The early rise in illegitimacy appears to have been related to increasing sexual activity, while the decline is ascribed to increasing use of birth control. Changes in illegitimacy rates since World War II are closely related to changing patterns of marital fertility control and timing of legitimate childbearing. Although illegitimacy may have a heavy impact on welfare programs, neither the AFDC program in the United States nor family allowance programs in other nations increase or decrease illegitimacy. The probability that an unmarried pregnant woman will marry prior to delivery is related to the level. of out-of-wedlock pregnancies in various populations. The chances for legitimation are high when pregnancies are few. We reject the view that differences in social stigma explain the chances for legitimation. Changes in illegitimacy rates in the United States since 1940 were examined. The bulk of the increase in nonwhite rates is related to improved health conditions that have reduced involuntary fetal loss and have increased fecundity. The increase in sexual activity among unmarried women after 1940 appears to be quite small, particularly among teenage girls not about to marry. Many unwed mothers eventually marry, and their chances (some 20 years after the illegitimate birth) of heading a family without a husband seem little different from those of other ever-married women. However, the hardship of illegitimacy on the child and mother during early years and the social costs involved are sufficient to justify development of programs to reduce illegitimacy. The potential of various programs is considered.

This research was supported by Public Health Service Grant MH 15567 and by the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future. The views expressed here do not reflect those of either sponsor.