MANATEE -- The Bradenton-Sarasota-North Port area has Florida's seventh-highest rate of births by unmarried woman.
A report based on 2011 data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau showed 42.5 percent of women age 15 to 50 who have given birth the previous 12 months in the three-city area were unmarried.
Nationally, 62 percent of new mothers age 20 to 24 in the same time period were unmarried compared with 17 percent among women age 35 to 39.
In Florida, the Ocala metro area leads the state with 59.6 percent of unmarried new moms. Other Florida areas with higher rates: Vero Beach, 50.3 percent; Lakeland, 47.9 percent; Orlando, 44.6 percent; Tallahassee, 43.4 percent; and Tampa, 43.1 percent.
Palm Coast, the area between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach, was the lowest at 6.2 percent.
The information comes from "Social and Economic Characteristics of Currently Unmarried Women with a Recent Birth: 2011," an American Community Survey report. The analysis is based on survey questions on whether women have given birth in the past 12 months and their marital status.
In 2011, 4.1 million women reported they had given birth in the last year. Of these women, 36 percent were unmarried at the time of the survey, an increase of five percentage points from 2005 when an estimated 31 percent of recent births were to unmarried women.
"Nonmarital fertility has been climbing steadily since the 1940s and has risen even more markedly in recent years," said Rose Kreider, a family demographer with the Census Bureau and one of the report's authors.
Fred Leonard, executive director of Healthy Start Coalition of Manatee County, said his experience indicates the birth rate among unmarried women in Manatee County may be a bit higher than 42 percent.
"Half of the individuals we work with are unmarried -- 50 percent -- in Manatee County," he said.
Healthy Start provides clinical support services to reduce infant mortality and the number of low-birth weight babies and improve health and developmental outcomes.
As to why the area's single-mother rate is so high, he conceded there isn't a lot of data.
"There's not a lot of con
crete research out there that can be identified," he said.
Anecdotally, Leonard and his staff point to economics and race as contributing factors.
"More unmarried birth occur in lower socio-economic groups, as well as minorities," primarily African-Americans and Hispanics, he said.
In addition, he said a number of young people are putting off marriage until later in life.
"But they do have relationships and they are sexually active," he said. "Maybe they're pursuing a career. But they're saying, 'Meanwhile, I've going to live my life.'"
The national data supports Leonard's observations.
The census reports women with more education generally have a lower rate of births out of marriage, a characteristic also true for Florida. For example, Ocala has the state's lowest rate of women with a college degree at 11.5 percent.
In the Bradenton-Sarasota-North Port area, 22.1 percent of the women surveyed had a college degree while 18.5 percent did not have a high school diploma.
Leonard emphasized marriage by itself doesn't guarantee a healthy child.
"Marriage doesn't impact if the baby will be healthy," he said.
Genetics play a bigger role than marital status.
"We look for stability in a household. It's more critical that the home has stability and provides good role models," he said.
Leonard also noted Manatee County has a relatively high teen birth rate. According to the Florida Department of Health, Manatee's teenage birth rate in 2008 was 56 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19, well above the state average of 40.
"We (Healthy Start) average 400 births a year from teens and nearly all of them are unmarried," he said.
Jim DeLa, East Manatee/Weekend editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JimDeLaBH.