The good folks over at Axios posted a new article this week explaining how out-of-wedlock births became the new normal, and they conclude this is a good thing. These are smart people, but not on this one. It’s worth examining why, because it has much to do with women and children’s welfare.
First, their data on the demographics of unmarried child-bearing comes from a brand new report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) entitled “The Power of Choice.” Just in case you didn’t know, the UNPF informs us in their opening sentence: “CHOICE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD. It can rapidly improve the well-being of women and girls, transform families and societies, and accelerate global development.”
Not necessarily. The benefit is not in the choice, but in what these women and girls choose. Choosing to have babies without a husband is not empowering in any degree. Not for the mother. Not for the child. Not for the community or the nation.
Yet Axios largely ignores this fact and says that at least unmarried child-bearing can help boost the world’s declining fertility rates. Kudos to them for recognizing that too few kiddos is a serious global problem and not a blessing. Before we address Axios’ take further, however, let’s look at what is happening with unmarried birth rates around the world.
Fewer Babies, More Born to Unmarried Parents
While fertility rates are plummeting in nearly all countries, the rate of women giving birth without the benefit of a husband has been increasing dramatically. The only major exceptions to this trend in the countries the UNPF examines are Russia and Japan. In Japan, unmarried births have long been miniscule compared to the rest of the world.
The only place the unmarried birth rate has been declining significantly is in Russia. It has been doing so since 2000, largely, demographers explain, due to President Vladimir Putin’s policies strengthening married families and encouraging their fertility.
Curious things are happening in other places. Sweden’s unmarried child-bearing rate seems to have leveled off since 2000, but at the dramatically high level between 50 to 60 percent of all births. The United States has remained level since the late aughts at 40 percent.
This must be considered against the fact that unintended pregnancies have declined in much of the world. So these are not young women having lots of sex without care for the consequences. Increasingly, they are very intentional and typically older 20- and 30-something women.
It must also be noted that most of the growth in unmarried childbearing in the last 10 to 20 years around the world is to women living with, but not married to, their partner. These are single, but not solitary, women. (That is why it is incorrect to say 40 percent of children today in the United States live in fatherless families. Most are living in unmarried father families.)
The Stigma Exists for Many Good Reasons
Back to Axios’ call to settle for the new normal of unmarried child-bearing. They indicate that while the upside is more fertility, the only real downside is those pesky conservatives. This trend in ring-less baby-making, they contend, is “likely to lead to more cultural friction, as social conservatives are unlikely to accept more births outside marriage.” This is where they are not so smart.
The good folks at Axios should know that it’s not just the conservatives who object. One of the strongest and most consistent findings from sociologists over the last 40 or so years, leading right up to today, is that one of the most powerful forces imprisoning women and their children in long-term and crushing poverty is—care to guess? That’s right, unmarried child-bearing. This includes cohabiting child-bearing.
Most of these sociologists are certainly not social conservatives, but more left of center and proud Democrats. A full history of the highlights of this research over the last five decades is provided here. Isabel Sawhill, a relentless advocate for child well-being and a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institute, made this bold statement more than a decade ago: “The proliferation of single-parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970s.” Virtually all of the increase!
The Progressive Policy Institute, which started as the “idea mill” for President Clinton’s first presidential campaign, distributed some remarkable data showing just how powerful family formation and cohesiveness are in driving down poverty. Two leaders of this institute, Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston (who served as President Clinton’s domestic policy advisor), explained in crisp language, “It is no exaggeration to say that a stable, two-parent family is an American child’s best protection against poverty.”
Galston also explained that avoiding poverty in the United States generally requires only three basic and entirely achievable accomplishments: 1) Finish high school, 2) Marry before having children, and 3) Marry after the age of 20. Only 8 percent of people who do these three things are poor, while 79 percent of those who fail to do them are impoverished.
Unmarried Childbearing Is a Recipe for Poverty
Just recently, one of the leading and most widely respected child-advocacy think tanks, Child Trends in Washington, DC, released a report on child poverty explaining that children “are much more likely to be impoverished if they live in single-mother families than if they live in married-couple families.”
Specifically Child Trends reports that 42 percent of children living in single-mother families are impoverished, compared with 8 percent of children living in married-couple families. The same pattern holds for white, black, Hispanic, and Asian children. Forty-six percent of black and 48 percent of Hispanic children with an unmarried mother are living below the federal poverty line. Only 11 and 17 percent respectively are doing so that live with married parents.
A major 2014 report by W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert Lerman for the American Enterprise Institute demonstrates time and again through various diverse measures that women, children and society benefit in tremendous ways when parents are married. Overall, they report that the growth in median income of families with children would be 44 percent higher if marriage levels in the United States today were what they were in 1980.
That is no trifling thing. Staggeringly, at least 32 percent of the growth in family-income inequality between classes since 1979 can be linked to the decreasing number of Americans who form and maintain stable, married families. Of course, this means that moralizing about the importance of married child-bearing has a profound economic upside for all women and children, given all the educational, health, dietary, and safety measures that it increases.
Unmarried Childbearing Unravels Other Advances
Professor Diana Pearce, the director of the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington, coined the important term “the feminization of poverty” in 1978, warning in the opening line of her paper, “Poverty is rapidly becoming a female problem.” While women began to enjoy increased independence and empowerment in society and the marketplace, Pearce explains that “for many the price of that independence has been their pauperization and dependence on welfare.”
Pearce notes that this happened just when “other trends would suggest potential for improving women’s status,” such as increased labor-force participation, mandates for affirmative action, and increasing employment of women with better educational opportunities. This is what we call “irony.” It’s because when women have babies with men they are not married to, they do not benefit from the glue marriage provides in tying such men to them and their child.
This is what matrimony literally means. It comes from the Latin matrimonium, which is the securing of a man’s “obligation to the mother” in both a legal and very public way. Since it has been the exception to the rule for a mother and her child to thrive by themselves, marriage arose in every civilization throughout time as a way to bind the impregnating male to his responsibility for his child and the child’s mother.
Thus, the good man steps up, and in doing so, becomes a husband, a word which stems from the Old Norse: hús (“house”) bóndi (“bonded dweller”). The man who becomes a husband is a man who settles down and confines himself to a particular household, serving and providing resources and protection for its inhabitants. He is bound to this house. Not that one over there. He is no longer a bumble bee. He becomes a whole other kind of man, taking full responsible for his sexuality and his part in the coming generation.
Marriage Is a Commitment to Take Care of Your Kids
Thus, marriage is very much about the surrounding community and its expectations that the father fulfill his obligation to a specific child so the rest of us don’t have to. His status as merely boyfriend or live-in partner does not do this. It is why marriage is an inherently public act and no society has found a way to function without it.
Marriage points male sexuality in an essential pro-social direction. It protects and provides for a woman and her children like no other relationship or social institution can. When it declines and unmarried child-bearing increases, government has to step in at dramatic and unsustainable costs to its taxpayers to make up for its absence. And it will ultimately fail in this effort, because no government can love your or your neighbor’s child.
It is clear from not only a mountain of research, but a whole, ever-expanding mountain range of it, that no one can match the success of husbands and wives in creating and raising the next generation of humanity. If unmarried child-bearing is the new normal, then it is colossally unjust, irresponsible, and uncivilized to settle for it.