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Rising Number Of Childless Women

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Anne Hare and her husband made a momentous decision three years ago: They would not have children. It's not that they don't like kids, she says. They simply don't want to alter the lifestyle they enjoy.

"With kids, especially young kids, infants and toddlers, you really can't do the active stuff we like to do," said Hare, 43, a fitness program coordinator from Gainesville, Ga.

Hare is among 26.7 million women ages 15 to 44 who are childless, according to new Census Bureau data from a June 2002 survey. That's 44 percent of all the women in that age group - a record number, and ten percent more than in 1990, when roughly 24.3 million women that age had not given birth.

Direct comparisons before 1990 are not possible because the bureau didn't track women younger than 18 until then.

The Census Bureau report tells only which women have given birth to children, according to age, income, educational background, ethnic background, occupation, and geographic location, and does not report on whether women are childless by chance or by choice.

The women counted as childless are those who have never given birth - including those who may later give birth.

Martha Farnsworth Riche, a demographer and former head of the Census Bureau, says she believes the latest numbers reflect the well-established trend of more women going to college and entering the work force, then delaying motherhood or deciding not to have children. She notes that increasing numbers are are choosing adoption.

Hare said she and other childless friends often are incorrectly tagged as "kid-haters."

"It's just difficult to explain to people that we don't hate kids, it's just that we don't want our own," she said.

The percentage of women 40 to 44 — those at the end of their childbearing years — who have not given birth has hovered around 18 percent since 1994, but that's up from 10 percent in 1976.

Women with higher incomes had the highest childless rates. David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project, a research group at Rutgers University, says he believes that reflects in part the increased professional options available to women.

Amy Caizza, study director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington think tank, said society's attitudes about childless women have also changed.

"Economic reasons are part of it, but it's also the effect of the women's movement, that you don't have to be a mother to be a complete woman," she said.

Just over half of Asian women were childless, the highest rate among race and ethnic groups. It was 46 percent for non-Hispanic whites, 39 percent for blacks and 36 percent for Hispanics.

Last year about 33 percent of all births were to unmarried women, roughly the same rate since 1998, said Census Bureau demographer Barbara Downs. Blacks were more likely than Hispanics or whites to have out-of-wedlock births.

Roughly 23 percent of the 25.8 million never-married women 15 to 44 were mothers in 2002, about the same rate from 1998 but up from 18 percent of the 20.7 million never-married women in 1990. There was a pronounced increase among never-married women in managerial or professional jobs who were mothers — the percentage has nearly doubled from 9 percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2002.

Many women in these occupations can earn salaries that enable them to raise a child on their own if they choose, Riche said.

"In earlier days, you had stigma and economic reasons" for these unmarried, professional women not to have kids, she said. "It's much less so now."

Also, about 8 percent of births were to women in unmarried partnerships, the first time the bureau had tracked such a category in the survey.

The report also showed a birth rate of 61 births per 1,000 women 15 to 44 in 2002, down from 67 per 1,000 in 1990. During the same period, it also found the birth rate for women 15 to 19 rose from 40 per 1,000 to 56 per 1,000.

That's far different from National Center for Health Statistics data, which in 2001 showed the birth rate for 15- to 19-year-olds at 45 per 1,000, declining steadily since 1990 from 60 per 1,000.

Government researchers, academics and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, an advocacy group, said they considered NCHS birth data more accurate because it is based on official vital records from hospitals.

The census report - online at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/fertility.html - was based on a survey of 50,000 homes.