40 percent of Maine births are to single mothers: Experts look at what it means

LEWISTON — Teri Clavet was going to marry her boyfriend, the father of her twins, until he pawned her engagement ring.

Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Teri Clavet, 25, feeds lunch to her twin 19-month-old daughters Salina Nichols, left, and Aliana Nichols at their central Maine apartment. Clavet, a single mother, also has a 7-year-old daughter, Anjee. 

Game over.

She was better off single.

Catherine Audet got pregnant by someone she'd dated casually. He wanted an abortion. She said forget it.

"There was definitely no marriage talk," she said.

Stephanie Mills found out she was expecting after she and her boyfriend of a year-and-a-half had broken up. Tying the knot came up, fleetingly.

The past 10 years have seen Maine join the rest of the country in a trio of trends: Fewer marriages. Fewer births to married couples. More births to single mothers.

The number of marriages in Maine is down 10 percent over a decade, married births down 21 percent and births to unwed mothers up 21 percent, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' Data, Research and Vital Statistics office.

Experts point to factors such as the economy — fewer good jobs, fewer people feeling like they're on stable ground to make a commitment — and cultural shifts. There's less stigma, more tossing convention and a more pronounced split between the choices made by people with more education and those with less.

The result is that 40 percent of all children born in Maine last year were born to unwed mothers, up significantly from 10 years ago. What it will mean to the state if the trend continues is not clear; there are few hard numbers on the phenomenon and few people studying the impact.

But at least one scholar says the shift from two-parent to single-parent households means tough decisions ahead.

Two competing theories on handling the future are offered by Brian Duff, a Coastal Studies Scholar at Bowdoin College:

— Either Maine ratchets up public support — health care, financial help — and sees whether more security in day-to-day lives means less stress on relationships. Maybe more people will then stay together. Maybe more will then marry.

— Or, Maine yanks the help. Maybe more people do for themselves. Maybe more couples stay together the old-fashioned way.

"For women under 30, more women are having kids out of wedlock than in," Duff said. "(The state) should get ready. There's no doubt this trend is going to make it very, very hard for a lot of Maine families to get by without some social support. We can offer that social support to toddlers who need good pre-K or we can offer the social support to teenagers who get in trouble with the law; it is probably cheaper if you give it to the toddlers."

From 'I do' to 'we'll see'

In 2001, 10,453 couples married in Maine. This decade, that figure peaked at 11,228 couples in 2004, and dropped to 9,474 last year.

The numbers track with the long, slow slide in the popularity of marriage, said Charles Colgan, former state economist and a professor at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service. The increased speed of the decline, especially since 2006, tracks with the recent recession.

"Marriage has always been about money," he said. "For all of our thinking about marriage being about romance — and it is, my wife would kill me if I said anything else — marriage as a social institution has always been about income and living arrangements."

Economists watch the figures because more couples mean more new households, more home sales, more furnishings. 

"It's actually a driver of the consumer-side of the economy," Colgan said.

But over the past few years, job prospects have been shaky for those getting out of high school and college; fewer men are going to college and more 20-somethings are living with parents.

"Sex is still going on, but people are so worried about the economy that marriage is being postponed," Colgan said.

Forty years ago, unplanned pregnancies were more likely to result in unplanned marriages, said Emily Kane, professor of sociology at Bates College. Not so, now. In addition, Generation Y (people born from about 1980 to 1999) may be more cautious after so many watched their parents get divorced.

"A lot of family demographers have argued in the last few decades that young people have come to think of marriage as something you work toward; you get your life in order, then get married," Kane said. "(It's) not a loss of interest in marriage, but a shift in what it's for."

Love and marriage

Over the same 10-year stretch in Maine, births to women who were married fell by 2,000 a year, to 7,388 in 2011. It at least in part represents some women aging out of prime child-bearing years and being replaced by fewer young women, Colgan said.

Trends in income, delaying motherhood for career and women having fewer children are also at play.

"What's become increasingly common for people with less education and usually, as a result, less economic stability, is to separate marriage and child-bearing," Kane said.

In a list of wants — college, career, marriage, children — the last can look most attainable.

"Here's the truth: There's real, genuine rewards to being a parent," Duff said. "There are genuine rewards to marriage and also to a career, but if you're living in a world where marriage doesn't seem like it's going to happen because, for example, the men you meet just seem incredibly unreliable, and your career doesn't seem like it's going to come together . . . This is one you can do. The benefits are real, although the struggles are also profound."

Last year, 5,283 children were born to unwed mothers, nearly 1,000 more than in 2001. That's 40 percent of all children born in Maine, compared to 30 percent in 2001.
It's not from a boom in teen pregnancy; that's down over the decade.
"These are not contraception mistakes, there's no doubt in my mind," said Luisa Deprez, a professor of sociology and Women & Gender Studies at the University of Southern Maine. "I see it as a much more conscious, secure, more determined woman making a conscious decision to bring another person into their life."

She added, "You have generational values placed on whether or not this is a positive or negative move."

The great unknown: How many of those single moms were living with their partners.

Robert Milardo's best guess is 50 percent.
A professor of family relations at the University of Maine, he said statistics show that cohabiting couples are less stable than married ones; some number will end up as single parents.
Becoming average
In 2000, 72 percent of Maine households with children were headed by married couples, according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count Data Center. That left Maine with more marrieds than most states. In 2010, the figure was 66 percent, same as the national average.

"The big question is what are the effects of all these changes on children?" Milardo said.

Poverty may be the biggest potential negative, something to which one-parent households with one income can be more susceptible.

"It means less books for your child, less opportunities for your child to do things that cost money, like join organizations; less money for transportation, all kinds of things spill over and affect children," Milardo said.

Studies show that in single and cohabitating households, measures of physical and mental health, future incarceration rates and the likelihood of graduating from college are poorer than in married households, Bowdoin's Duff said.

"A lot of that effect has to do with income," he said. "But it also has to do with the amount of time you get to spend interacting with your parents when you're young, as opposed to your parent having two jobs (and) when they're home, scrambling to get the house clean, put food on the table, pay the bills."

Duff, who will return to the University of New England next year as an associate professor of political science, expects states to try different attempts to counter or reverse marriage and birth trends.

"(Down South) they're creating marriage-promotion efforts, and a lot of them have slightly religious overtones, but there's an interesting variety of them," Duff said.

Kentucky makes divorce more difficult. A Texas program encourages some pregnant women and their boyfriends to talk out issues such as finances.

He noted states such as Massachusetts that have higher marriage rates also have more social safety nets.

Kane said the notion of family has always changed with time. This, she said, is more change, not a crisis.

"The traditional family some of us in our minds have as some kind of golden era of the 1950s really never existed," Kane said.


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FRANK EARLEY's picture

Might I make a small suggestion.

I won't go into many details because there too painful for me to relive. I just think its important for the state to revamp, if they haven't already, their treatment of what they used to refer to as the delinquent parent.
That one aspect has a huge effect on the eventual relationship between father and child and possibly father and mother.
Twenty seven years ago, I had a daughter. Twenty six years ago I met my daughter for the first time.
I had just moved here from out of state and heard for the first time about something called "AFDC" I didn't know what it was or what I was about to get myself into.
My daughters mother found out about the pregnancy after we had stopped seeing each other. She and I were young, and she did what she had to do to get by. Here's we're my biggest mistake of my life occurred.
I went down to the DHS building in Lewiston, and informed them that I think I owe you some money I had just found out about. I have never in my life seen such an unorganized, untrained bunch of idiots in my life.
They had no idea how to, or should I say, what to do with me. You see people don't usually come to them. The only method of treatment was criminal. I was a criminal who just turned himself in.
After several hours of being transferred from one empty brain to another. I finally learned what I owed. This included my daughters living expenses, as well as the medical bills from when she was born. Now the fun really begins. They send me to Support Enforcement Department. I thought the first group of people were stupid, now I know where they were trained.
Now I don't need to go on all day so I'll get to my point. This all could have been taken care of in a few minutes, It was only, at that point about eight thousand dollars. I kept asking them why I couldn't just pay the bill, set up a child support payment schedule and everyone's happy. That wasn't something that was possible. All I needed to do was write a check and everyone would be happy. They had no idea how to, or what to do with collected money. Now I knew a battle of wits was out of the question, this group was totally unarmed. They totally insulted me in the coming weeks. This started a twenty four year war with DHS. Numerous support officers left their jobs as did numerous DHS case workers over the years.
Long story short, I paid back a total of about twelve thousand dollars. I made it as slow and painful as possible for them to get a penny. All because they weren't trained to treat a parent with a little respect especially when that parent came to them. Its almost like they go out of their way to discourage parents even un married ones, from working together to raise a child. And they still wonder why there are so many single mothers out there.
In my case they lost. I now have a very happy and successful twenty seven year old daughter, with a mother and father who both work for her well being, It wasn't easy. I hope someone in Augusta reads this.

Linda Sherwood's picture

Re: Frank's punishment of being honest

First, Kathryn, a huge cyber high-five to you for some great investigative reporting.

Frank, thank you for sharing your experience, for your honesty in approaching DHHS and Child Support Enforcement to do what is right and cover the expenses for your daughter, and for being a father who is involved in his daughters life. Many of us girls and women did not/do not have that in our lives, therefore giving us a slanted view about men/fathers.

My own father ditched my Mom, went on to have other children and live a great life of traveling, driving a Cadillac, and sending the other children to private schools. Years and years went by without my mother able to collect little child support or help with medical and dental bills for me, all the while she had attempted to collect through the Child Support Enforcement department.

For the past nine years I have raised my five children alone after their father ditched the responsibility, which eventually led to me losing the house because of the financial strain on me to cover all the household expenses alone...with child support just trickling in from time to time. Now, the father of my five children owes thousands of dollars to the state and every time I contact the department for a report, the response is the same - that Brat has been regularly in touch with the assigned enforcement officer (and of course this has rotated through quite a few, with no consistency on the case) and has explained his financial situation and that how he is looking for employment. Yeah, right. The guy is a self-employed handyman working on expensive homes on the coast (you KNOW he is making $$$$), maintains two decent vehicles (one of them a new truck), buys the kids NEW toys like iPods, the latest Playstation and games, and new bikes. Great for the kids as they now want to go to see their father where the good toys are! However, the guy has relied on the state to cover the medical expenses for the children through Mainecare, etc. Oh, I could go on and on.

My point is, the Child Support Enforcement workers are regularly collecting paychecks from taxpayer dollars, yet they are NOT collecting child support from non-custodial parents. Because of the lack of child support, it makes it necessary in many cases (even for custodial parents who are working) to rely on the safety net of TANF and SNAP (food stamps).

Kathryn Skelton, I would love to talk with you further about digging deeper into the experiences of dealing with DHHS and Child Support Enforcement. The idiocracy is truly mind-blowing. I already have many notes and have been planning on writing about what I have witnessed.

FRANK EARLEY's picture


Thank you for your post. In response to your particular situation, I feel its two fold. First, like I said in my post, I moved here from out of state. I used to drive a truck here every night and come up on week ends, but that's about it. I was probably twenty four years old or so, I also lived in New Hampshire for awhile. I never experienced what I did in Maine. I never heard of AFDC or any other assistance program. I was either lucky or nieve. It was just something that although it shocked the hell out of me when I saw fathers acting the way they did, I just never experienced it before.
The other half is DHS, (I keep calling it that because that's what it was called back then). What can I say about an organization that turned a situation that could have been taken care of in the time it takes to write a check, into a twenty four year drawn out battle. Thats what I call state government at its best. The problem you describe has been going on for generations. Its passed down . DHS knows this , they just don't have the training and flexibility as an organization to battle it. What they do is grab onto what is easily accessible, like me. then they celebrate like they actually accomplished something. Unfortunately for them in the middle of that celebration they sometimes get kicked in the ass. As far as actually being able to go out and find someone, well that's why so many people get away with not having to pay what they owe. I knew people who didn't or wouldn't pay what they owed, I was as frustrated as you are. The total all consuming anger I feel for DHS, frustrated me even more. It still does to this day. Unless there is a total overhaul of the entire system, the people who work there given the ability to make day to day decisions. And maybe somewhere along the line try to have a little compassion for people who are trying to work with them, nothing is ever going to change.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

If your description of 'them'

If your description of 'them' is accurate, which I have no reason to believe it isn't, what makes you think 'they' can read?

 's picture

Well, so much for the

Well, so much for the "sanctity" of traditional marriage....

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

It's difficult for me to see

It's difficult for me to see how 40% of kids being born out of wedlock has to do with an absence of sanctity of traditional marriage. Some would see it more as a lack of respect for self and a major flaw in the process of choosing mates. The kids suffer; the taxpayers pay.


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