Nearly 41 percent of the babies born in Oklahoma in 2006 were born to unwed mothers. That percentage has been increasing for decades — both in Oklahoma and across the nation. The trend — with out-of-wedlock births hitting 40.9 percent in Oklahoma in 2006 — is placing a strain on Oklahoma's ability to meet the needs of children and families, Department of Human Services Director Howard Hendrick told agency commissioners Tuesday.
"If you go back 35 years, less than 10 percent of all births in Oklahoma were out of wedlock,” Hendrick said. The percentage of births out of wedlock here has been slightly higher than the national average in recent years. In 2004, which was the last year for which final national figures are available, the percentage was 38.4 percent in Oklahoma, slightly higher than the national average of 35.8 per-cent, according to records. Per- centages varied widely, from 17.5 percent in Utah to 55.9 percent in the District of Columbia.
What's the reason?Reasons for the trend are unclear, Hendrick said, acknowledging the structure of government aid programs may unintentionally play a role. When a dad leaves, the mother is considered to have greater financial need, so more aid is provided. When a mother has a second child, she is considered in greater need, so more aid is given, he said. When a woman is unmarried, only her income is considered in determining Medicaid eligibility for childbirth. If she is married, both partners' incomes are considered, he said. "These programs were designed to meet needs rather than promote healthy families,” Hendrick said. However, Hendrick said he's not sure how much people think about such things when deciding whether to marry. There are many cultural factors that are difficult to identify and understand, he said. "Society today is so much more complex,” he said.
What's the effect?Out of wedlock births often lead to one-parent families. Hendrick said a national study indicates that in 20 percent of out-of-wedlock births, the child has been abandoned by the father before birth.
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The numbersState Health Department records show the percentage of Oklahoma out-of-wedlock births had increased to: •12% in 1976. •18.6% in 1986. •31.1% in 1996. •40.9% in 2006.
Why the rise?Department of Human Services chief Howard Hendrick said there are many cultural factors that are difficult to identify and understand. However, he said the structure of government aid programs may unintentionally play a role. When a father leaves, the mother is considered in greater financial need, so more aid is provided, Hendrick said.