SEBRING - Unwed mothers in Highlands County outnumber married mothers.
It's been that way since 2005, and the trend is increasing locally and in neighboring counties, according to FloridaCharts.com
"The increased share of unmarried recent mothers is one measure of the nation's changing family structure," said Rose Kreider, family demographer and author of a Census Bureau report on the subject. "Non-marital fertility has been climbing steadily since the 1940s, and has risen even more markedly in recent years."
The youngest mothers are the least likely to be married. In 2011, 62 percent of American women age 20 to 24 who gave birth in the previous 12 months were unwed, according to the May 1 U.S. Census Bureau report. In contrast, 17 percent of births were to unwed women age 35 to 39.
The Highlands trend started with the latest generation of mothers: twenty years ago, two of three mothers were married; by 2004. the numbers of married and unwed mothers were almost equal. In 2005, more mothers were unwed.
Out of 907 Highlands births in 2012, 497 - about five of nine - were to unwed mothers. Of those 907 mothers, 714 were white, 148 were black, three were native American, two were Chinese, 10 were Filipino, 12 were other Asians, and 18 were multiracial.
Measured by birthweight, 294 of those 907 newborns weighed less 6.7 pounds.
Of the 907 mothers, six were 15, six were 16, 17 were age 17, 29 were 18, 37 were 19, the rest were 20 or older.
In prenatal care, 571 of the 907 mothers began prenatal care in the first trimester. However, 264 waited until the second trimester, 34 in the third trimester, and 38 may not have seen a health professional.
"Those are the women that Healthy Start is seeking out," said Director Nasseam McPherson James from the Highlands County Health Department. "We really need to jump on them and get them services so the baby has the best outcome possible,"
Every prenatal mother is referred to the Healthy Start program, where prenatal mothers' babies are screened for risk factors like the mother eating junk food, low birthweight, education, labor expectations, how to breast feed, and who to call after the baby arrives. African-Americans are at higher risk.
Children with less-than-successful birth outcomes are less likely to succeed in school, more likely have respiratory issues, and more likely to be sick in infancy and toddler years, James said.
By education, 42 of the 907 Highlands mothers have at least a ninth-grade education, 188 completed from nine to 12 years but no diploma, 335 have a diploma, 214 have some college or an associate's degree, and 107 have at least one college degree.
The most telling statistic, however, is the number of low birthweights for unwed teenaged mothers: of the 95 total babies, 88 were to unmarried mothers; 10 of those babies weighed under 5.6 pounds, and six of their mothers waited until the third trimester to receive pre-natal care, even though 12 had a previous baby.
Why do some mothers wait until the third trimester to start prenatal care?
"I have the same frustration," James said. Healthy Start classes are free and include about 125 mothers at any given time - more when migrant workers are in Highlands County.
"It's not like the service isn't there. Some of them say, 'I don't need the service.' They need somebody really drilling it in their heads. Sometimes, we even reach out and do a home visit. Every baby deserves a healthy start," James said.
In 2011, 4.1 million American women gave birth: 36 percent were unmarried at the time, an increase from 2005 when an estimated 31 percent of recent births were to unmarried women.
The proportion of recent births to unmarried women varied by socio-economic characteristics: for example, 57 percent of unmarried women with less than a high school diploma gave birth in 2011, the highest percentage among the education groups. By contrast, only 9 percent of recent mothers with a bachelor's degree or higher were unmarried.
Unmarried mothers can be poor or rich: 69 percent were from households with incomes of less than $10,000 per year, but 9 percent lived in households with annual income of $200,000 or more.
Other census highlights:
Native-born moms were more likely to be unmarried than women born outside the United States, 39 percent to 24 percent.
Among black women who gave birth in the last year, 68 percent were unmarried. The corresponding percentages were 11 percent for Asians, 43 percent for Hispanics and 26 percent for non-Hispanic whites.
States with the highest percentages of women with a birth in the last year who were unmarried included the District of Columbia, 51 percent; Louisiana, 49 percent; Florida, Mississippi and New Mexico, 48 percent.
Among the states with the lowest percentage of recent mothers who were unmarried were Utah, 15 percent; and New Hampshire, 20 percent.
Metropolitan areas with considerably higher percentages of unmarried recent moms than the national average: Flagstaff, Ariz., 75 percent; Greenville, N.C., 69 percent; Lima, Ohio, 68 percent.
The lowest percentages of unmarried recent moms: Provo-Orem, Utah, 8 percent; Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Wash., 12 percent; and Bremerton-Silverdale, Wash., 13 percent.