The birth rate for unmarried women dropped for the first time in nearly 20 years, the federal government reported Friday as part of a broad new survey of the nation’s health that also found improvements in infant mortality, prenatal care and life expectancy.
The 4 percent drop in the out-of-wedlock birth rate last year represents a marked shift in a figure that has proven stubbornly resistant to improvement and that has come to exemplify the wider breakdown of the traditional family structure.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the report, noted the decline coincided with a drop in teenage pregnancies for the fourth year in a row.
The teenage birth rate has fallen 8 percent since 1991. Teenage mothers are responsible for about one-third of all out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
Health officials and social policy experts were reluctant Friday to say precisely what produced the good news, warning it is too early, and the improvements too modest, to predict with certainty the possible causes.
But both Republicans and Democrats immediately lauded the numbers, and began jockeying for political credit. The White House was so eager to link Clinton with the lower illegitimacy rate that they devoted Clinton’s weekly Saturday radio address to the topic and, in an unusual move, told reporters they were free to use Clinton’s remarks pointing up the improvement in this vexing social problem even before the program aired.
The report, compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, also found:
Life expectancy went up to 75.8 years, the same rate as 1992.
The percentage of women who receive prenatal care in early pregnancy climbed from 80.2 percent to 81.2 percent.
The overall birth rate declined for the fifth straight year, and is the lowest it has been since 1986.
The center found the leading cause of death last year remained heart disease, followed by cancer, stroke and pulmonary disease.