Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released preliminary U.S. birth data for 2008.  A flurry of news stories followed.

Two statistics dominated the headlines: the total number of births fell by 2 percent, after peaking in 2007, and teen birthrates declined as well, reversing a slight two-year uptick.

But the mainstream media completely ignored the most genuinely concerning trend in childbearing.  In 2008, more than 4 in 10 children, or about 1.7 million births, were born to unmarried mothers.

For decades, unmarried childbearing has been trending unrelentingly upward.  In 1960, about 5.3 percent of all births were to unmarried mothers.  Ten years later, it had doubled to 10.7 percent.  By 1980, it was 18.4 percent, and in 1990, 28 percent.

The 1996 welfare reform, which aimed to reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing as it is a primary cause of child poverty, slowed its growth rate for a few years, but by 2003, it resumed the dramatic climb, an increase of 17 percent in 5 years.

In 2008, 40.6 percent of all births in the U.S, were to unwed mothers, according to the new CDC report.  While unwed teenage childbearing comprised one-half of all unmarried births in 1975, in 2008, the 133,000 births to those under age 18 comprised less than 8 percent of all unmarried births (22 percent if 18- and 19-year-olds are included).

Indeed, out-of-wedlock childbearing has largely become a twenty-something phenomenon.  About 37 percent of all unwed births were to the young twenty-something, and another 23 percent to unmarried women in their late twenties.

Why should the steady increase in unwed childbearing concern the public?

For one, “the 1.7 million out-of-wedlock births are an overwhelming catastrophe for the taxpayers and society.” Heritage senior research fellow Robert Rector explains:

The steady growth of out-of-wedlock childbearing and the general collapse of marriage lie at the heart of the mushrooming welfare/dependence state.  This year taxpayers will spend over $300 billion providing means-tested welfare aid to single parents.  The average single mother receives nearly three dollars in government benefits for each one dollar in taxes paid.  These subsidies are largely funded by the heavy taxes paid by higher income married couples.

The public cost of unwed childbearing is burdensome, but weighty social concerns loom large as well.  Heritage’s Robert Rector further explains:

The U.S. is rapidly evolving into a two caste system with marriage and education at the dividing line.  Children in the top half of the population are born to married couples with a college education; children in the bottom half are born to single mothers with a high school degree or less.

The disappearance of marriage in low income communities is the predominant cause of child poverty in the U.S. today.  If poor single mothers were married to the fathers of their children, two thirds would immediately escape from poverty.  In addition, the absence of husbands from the home is a strong contributing factor to crime, school failure, drug abuse, emotional disturbance and a host of other social problems.

And how have the Obama administration and the Congress responded to these worrying trends?

They have proposed to effectively eliminate the only remaining federal program to strengthen marriage.  Instead, the administration and the Congress have created two new programs, including one in the healthcare legislation, that implicitly endorse a message of permissiveness among teens.  Costing about $200 million per year, the new programs fund additional comprehensive sex-ed, and add to the existing $610 million per year that already support these programs.

For five decades, unwed childbearing has risen steadily, with no indication of relenting. Yet the only government response has been to spend more, a failing solution that also undermines the institution of marriage.