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Statistical Flaw Taints Illegitimacy Figures

May 02, 1996|From Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — California women who use their maiden names after marriage and childbirth may be surprised to learn they are officially counted among the state's "epidemic" of unwed mothers.

Figures reported by the National Center for Health Statistics suggest that 35% of children born in California are born to unwed mothers.

The information comes from analyses of photocopied birth certificates sent from the state's Office of Vital Statistics to the national center, which reports demographic trends in all the states.

California, however, is one of five states that does not include marital status on birth certificates. So to determine how many California babies are born to parents who are married, state and federal gatherers of statistics must use an "inferential method."

"If [new mothers] sign the certificates with their maiden name, and the baby has the father's name, they're presumed not married," said Debbie Rhea, supervisor of the state Office of Vital Records. "There's not a box where we can add that the names are different, but they're married."

As a result, hundreds, perhaps thousands of babies born to married women are included in the anonymous count of births to unwed mothers.

"Can you believe it?" said Assemblywoman Martha Escutia (D-Huntington Park). "I am an unmarried woman and my child was born out of wedlock? . . . I can't wait to tell my mother-in-law."

Escutia, who is married but uses her maiden name, gave birth to Andres Briones last June. Since then, she said, she has been surprised and annoyed by offers from marketers of baby items addressed to "Andres Escutia."

The scope of the problem is difficult to pin down--no detailed records are kept, and officials at the U.S. Census Bureau office in Los Angeles were unwilling to hazard a guess as to how many California women are married but still use their maiden names.

Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame)--a mother of two children who did not take her late husband's last name--has authored a bill that would require marital status to be included on the confidential section of California birth certificates.

California's 35% illegitimacy rate in 1993--the last year for which federal data is available--was the ninth-highest in the country; the national rate was 31%. The District of Columbia reported that a staggering 67.8% of 1993 babies there were born to unwed mothers.

In his January State of the State address, Gov. Pete Wilson said children of unwed mothers are "overwhelmingly more likely to drop out of school, to abuse drugs, to land in jail, to have their own children out of wedlock and to become trapped in welfare dependency."

"All of the problems tearing apart the fabric of our society have deep roots in this exploding epidemic of out-of-wedlock births," he said.

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