Census Bureau Finds Marriage Trends Vary Across Country

Couples in the Northeast are hearing wedding bells later than men and women elsewhere in the country — especially Utah, where younger newlyweds are the norm.

A Census Bureau (search) study being released Thursday found many regional differences in the marrying habits of Americans, with those near the East and West coasts generally waiting longer to get married than those in Middle America. The study also found that Southerners are the least likely to live together without getting married.

"Later marriage is very strongly associated with higher levels of education," said David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project (search) at Rutgers University (search). "That's why people in the Northeast have such a late age of marriage."

The age when couples get married can also be influenced by religion and whether they are willing to live together without getting married, Popenoe said.

"It delays marriage," Popenoe said of living together before marriage. "Men marry too late from the point of view of women, especially educated men. It leaves more women single, or marrying beyond the age of childbirth."

The median age for first marriages in the United States is 26.7 years for men and 25.1 for women. That is roughly a year older than a decade ago for both, said Martin O'Connell, chief of the Census Bureau's fertility and family statistics branch.

Men wait longer than women to marry in every state, and no one gets married younger than couples in Utah, where the median age is 21.9 for women and 23.9 for men. At the other end of the spectrum, men and women in Washington, D.C., both wait until they are about 30.

"Big cities tend to have high ages for marriage," said Zhenchao Qian, associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

The Census Bureau analyzed data from the American Community Survey (search) from 2000 to 2003, developing state-by-state averages on marriage and fertility for the first time.

Among the study's findings: 29 percent of all new mothers were unmarried. Among the unmarried mothers, half were poor, compared with 12 percent of married mothers who lived in poverty.

"Single parenthood and poverty are about as closely related as you can get," Popenoe said.

The states with the most unwed new mothers also tended to be the ones with the highest percentage of new mothers living in poverty.

Washington, D.C., had the highest percentage of new mothers who were unmarried, at 53.4 percent. The city also had the highest percentage of new mothers living in poverty, at 36.3 percent. West Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana also had high percentages of unwed mothers living below the poverty line.

Among the study's other findings:

— Maine had the highest percentage of households with unmarried couples, at 7.3 percent, while Alabama had the lowest, at 3 percent.

— One-fifth of all new mothers in California either did not speak English well or did not speak it at all.

— Fifteen percent of all new mothers in the U.S. were not citizens.

— Hispanics had the highest birth rates, while non-Hispanic whites had the lowest.