WASHINGTON -- With the debate over reducing the country's welfare rolls focusing renewed attention on the rising birthrate among unwed women, the Census Bureau reported yesterday that such births soared by more than 70 percent from 1983 to 1993.
According to the bureau, 6.3 million children, or 27 percent of all children under the age of 18, lived in 1993 with a single parent who had never married, up from 3.7 million in 1983.
The report showed that the annual increase in the number of children born out of wedlock slowed in the 1980s, but it also documented the sharp rise in these kinds of births over the last three decades. About 243,000 children lived with one parent who had never married in 1960, but by last year that number had climbed to 6.3 million.
"It's astonishing," said Kristin Moore, director of Child Trends, a Washington-based research organization that studies adolescent pregnancy. "It's really a substantial social change, and it's happened really fast."
The figures are compiled in an annual report by the Census Bureau titled "Marital Status and Living Arrangements." The findings mirror the results of other studies in recent years that show out-of-wedlock births still on the rise.
The report demonstrated the extent to which blacks are affected by the changes that are eroding the traditional family structure. According to the report, 57 percent of black children are living with one parent who has never married, compared with 21 percent of white children and 32 percent of Hispanic children.
The phenomenon of out-of-wedlock births has been cited as a factor in a host of social problems, including increased crime, drug abuse, welfare dependency and poor educational attainment.
Indeed, the bureau's report presented stark evidence of the socio-economic disadvantages confronted by children living in one-parent households, as against those in two-parent families. And the report indicated that those disadvantages were much more acute for a parent who never married.
According to the Census Bureau, the median family income in households where two parents were present was $43,578. In contrast, in one-parent families where the mother was divorced, the median income was $17,014, and where she had never been married, the median income was $9,272.
Similarly, 10.6 percent of children living in two-parent families were living below the poverty line. But 38.4 percent of children living with divorced mothers and 66.3 percent of those living with mothers who had never married were living below the poverty line.
The latest figures are likely to fuel the debate over competing Democratic and Republican proposals on how to cut the welfare rolls.
In its bill, the Clinton administration emphasizes the need to identify the fathers of children born out of wedlock and hold them responsible for financial support of their children. It also requires single mothers under 20 to remain in school in order to continue receiving welfare benefits and allows states to limit additional cash benefits to women whose babies are conceived while they are on welfare.
But a group of Republicans in the House, contending that welfare provides an incentive for poor, unmarried women to bear children, goes one step further than President Clinton, freezing welfare payments at current levels and denying cash benefits to single mothers under the age of 18.
"I think these figures dramatize, once again, that our welfare policies are going in absolutely the wrong direction," said Rep. Jan Meyers of Kansas, the architect of the Republican bill.
But some researchers say that freezing or denying welfare benefits would not have much, if any, effect on the soaring illegitimacy rates. They note that the out-of-wedlock birthrate rose in the 1960s when the value of welfare benefits went up. Yet the rate continued to rise in the 1970s and 1980s, even though the value of the benefits declined because they did not keep pace with inflation.
"Research suggests that welfare accounts for some, but not all of this phenomenon," said Martha Farnsworth Riche, director of policy studies for the Population Reference Bureau, a private research group.
The statistics included in the annual report also document other trends affecting the traditional American family:
* The number of unmarried adults nearly doubled, to 72.6 million from 37.5 million, from 1970 through 1993, with 58 percent of this group made up of adults who have never married.
* The number of people who are divorced tripled, to 16.7 million in 1993 from 4.3 million in 1970.
* Men and women alike continue to delay marriage, with the median age at first marriages rising last year to 26.5 years for men and 24.5 years for women. The figures represent the highest median age at marriage for both men and women since 1890.
* The delay in marriage is greatest among blacks, with 22 percent of black women age 40 to 44 never having been married, compared with 7 percent of white women and 9 percent of Hispanic women.