October 8, 2003
By Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D.
From time to time, some academic crackpot argues that we should
require anyone who wants children to get a government license.
The idea of creating a government bureaucracy to decide who's
worthy of parenthood sounds crazy, and it is. But there was a time
when people did need a license to have children -- a marriage
license. Government didn't require it, though; our culture did. Men
and women who had children outside of wedlock were viewed as
immoral and irresponsible. Judgmental? Unfair? That depends on your
criteria, but it proved an effective deterrent to out-of-wedlock
births and prevented much more suffering than it caused.
This same imperative also endowed the engagement ring with
special significance. It meant the woman had convinced her
husband-to-be that her attractiveness was more than skin-deep. And
it meant the man had shown he could be trusted to provide for a
family. Through this ring, both had, in effect, qualified each
other for a parenthood license.
That was how society built itself, couple by solid couple: With
families begun by consenting adults who got to know each other well
before committing themselves publicly to each other for life.
But marriage wasn't just a license to have children -- and
here's the tough part for a sexually "liberated" age such as ours
-- it was the license you needed for sexual activity. Today, with
48 percent of American high-schoolers saying they've had sex at
least once before graduating, this has certainly changed. What
hasn't changed is the logic behind waiting until marriage to
experience sex -- that babies result from sexual encounters and
that babies fare best when their parents are married to each other.
Children need both parents.
Today, about one out of every three children in America is born
to a woman who isn't married to the baby's father. Only 28 percent
of all children conceived will reach their 18th birthday with their
parents still married and living together. What does the future
hold for the other 72 percent? A review of the major research on
this topic makes a compelling case for President Bush's proposal to
spend $300 million to encourage intact families.
The evidence shows the children of intact two-parent families
are rarely aborted, earn more and learn more, are far less likely
to go to prison or become addicted to drugs, and are far more
likely to lead happier, healthier and longer lives. These children
are seven times less likely to grow up poor than children born to
single mothers. Conversely, children of never-married mothers are
far more likely to bear children out of wedlock, to drop out of
school and to live in poverty their entire lives.
These findings underscore the good sense behind the president's
plan to encourage marriage. Today, the federal government spends
$1,000 to address the problems caused by out-of-wedlock births for
every $1 it spends to encourage marriage. President Bush's proposal
would change that to $4 for every $1,000 spent on welfare,
corrections, government-funded health care and other social
If we're to spend $100 billion annually to address the social
ills caused by out-of-wedlock births, why not spend a fraction of
that amount ($300 million) to try to cut these costs and, more
importantly, alleviate the suffering they represent?
It's important to note that the image of the people targeted
here -- teen mothers who barely know their child's father -- is
largely myth. The average unwed mom is 22. The Fragile Families and
Child Wellbeing Study, a four-year project of Princeton University
and Columbia University, shows that half live with the father, 82
percent report being "romantically involved" with him, and 73
percent say they have at least a 50/50 chance of eventually
There is good news, too, on the incidence of domestic violence
in these "fragile families": Only 5 percent of unmarried mothers
said the child's father was violent, and only 6.7 percent said the
fathers had drug or alcohol problems.
The decline in marriage rates since the 1960s has contributed
heavily to the high levels of child poverty recorded over the last
three decades. Heritage Foundation research shows that restoring
marriage to its 1960 levels would rescue more than 3 million
children from poverty. It would cut the child poverty rate from
15.7 percent to 11.2 percent.
The poor will always be with us, but we could reduce their ranks
-- and ease their suffering -- if we'd resurrect the cultural norm
of demanding marriage before having children. It's time for a
course correction. Emphasizing marriage before parenthood is an
excellent place to start.
Patrick Fagan is
the FitzGerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at The
Distributed nationally on the Scripps-Howard wire
The idea of creating a government bureaucracy to decide who's worthy of parenthood sounds crazy, and it is. But there was a time when people did need a license to have children -- a marriage license.
Patrick F. Fagan, Ph.D.
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