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February 22, 2012

Unwed Childbearing is the ‘New Normal’? Depends on Where You Stand

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Unwed childbearing is the “new normal” for women under 30, reports the New York Times. A study from the research organization Child Trends reveals that 53 percent of births to women in this age group now occur outside marriage.

However, this trend is anything but normal for some American women. The overwhelming majority of college-educated mothers — 95 percent — continue to put marriage before the baby carriage. On the other hand, the majority of single mothers are those who will have the hardest time raising a child alone when it comes to economic well-being: those with a high-school diploma or less. 

The “new normal” in lower-income America compounds negative economic trends among this population. Having a child outside of marriage is one of the greatest drivers of poverty. Children born into single-parent homes are roughly five times more likely to be poor than their peers with married parents and 80 percent of all long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes.

As a result, marriage and education are becoming the dividing lines of an economically split America. 

“Marriage is not losing ground in America’s best neighborhoods. But it’s a very different story in blue-collar America,” notes University of Virginia professor Brad Wilcox, commenting on American Enterprise scholar Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010.

 “The bottom line is that a growing marriage divide now runs through the heart of white America.”

Children of single parents are not only more likely to be poor, but they face a variety of other challenges that make them less likely to achieve upward mobility, thus perpetuating the economic divide. For example, these children have lower rates of academic achievement, are less likely to graduate from high school, and have higher levels of delinquent behavior. 

But what has contributed to the breakdown of marriage in lower- and middle-income communities?

Factors include the sexual revolution, which decreased the stigma of having a child outside of marriage, and welfare assistance that facilitated it. However, it isn’t that women in lower-income America don’t value marriage. As researchers Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas point out in their book Promises I Can Keep, lower-income women look highly upon marriage, but they see it as a capstone event rather than as a foundation upon which to build their families. Motherhood before marriage, however, significantly hinders their likelihood of achieving a stable marriage or a stable economic future.

While marriage unravels in middle America, Murray laments that “politicians and media eminences are too frightened to say . . . [that] nonmarital births are problematic.”

My colleague Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation likewise adds that “schools, the welfare system, the health care system, public authorities, and the media all remain scrupulously silent on the subject.” 

The “new normal” in middle America is a poor substitute for what once was. It contributes to poverty rather than to the stability upon which the American dream has been built. As Murray asserts: “When it comes to marriage . . . the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.”

Rachel Sheffield is a research assistant at the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation and co-author of the recent paper Understanding Poverty in the U.S.  

First appeared in National Review Online

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