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. Of the remaining 80 percent, half involve couples living together and half do not. While 88 percent of the unwed couples say they think their chance of getting married is better than 50-50, a year later, only 9 percent of those will actually be married. And by the time their children are 4 or 5 years old, only 20 percent of the couples will still be together, he said. The impact on social services agencies has been dramatic. Single-parent families frequently live in poverty and have a greater need for a variety of DHS assistance, including food stamps, child care, Medicaid and foster care, Hendrick said. The agency has noticed a significant increase in children under age 1 being placed into foster care, he said. One way DHS has tried to combat the problem is by creating a new program called FamilyStart, Hendrick said. As part of that program, DHS workers go into the Children's Hospital at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, where many Medicaid-funded births occur, and work to establish relationships with unwed mothers and unstable families as soon as babies are born, Hendrick said. Workers in those programs told commissioners one of their major goals is to relieve financial stressors on parents in hopes of keeping them together for the benefit of their children. To meet the immediate needs of parents, workers said they will get them into programs where they can obtain food, clothing, baby items, housing assistance and transportation. In the process, they said they try to establish relationships so they can later help the parents obtain training assistance and better jobs.
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.