Part 2 of 3:
“When unwed births hit 41%, it’s just not right” states a USATODAY.com editorial (2011-01-25). When the CDC report that 1.6 million children are born every year in the U.S., to unmarried mothers (Centers for Disease and Prevention, 2010) the figure is staggering. And when the NYTimes.com states that “Out of Wedlock Births Are the New Normal” (Feb 19, 2012), it is hard not to think of this as a problem.
As stated in Part 1 of this blog post, this has been a growing phenomenon in the last few decades.
From 5% in the 1950s the figure rose to the current rate of 41%. And when you take into account that the size of the American population has almost doubled during these 50 years the actual numbers are even more troubling. America cannot continue in this direction without getting itself into an enormous economic and cultural mess.
So what can we do – what should we do – to change direction without stigmatizing out of wedlock births, the mothers and their children?
How Did We Get Here?
To begin with, we must try to understand how and why we got to this point. Fifty years ago, in 1965, when unmarried births in the black community were nearing 24% (and only 3% among white mothers), Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Labor Department official and later a prominent senator, rang alarm bells about the crumbling black family. His report on the subject ignited a national furor, and Moynihan was accused of racism and blaming the victim.
The public conversation about out-of-wedlock births has been muffled ever since, quietly simmering on a back burner.
While the problem was spreading nationally and public policy and public health concerns focused on the welfare of the children who were born into these fatherless families, the public at large has remained silent. People do not know how to react, fearing criticism and accusations of being old-fashioned, insensitive, heartless, racist, and bigoted. And most people are oblivious to the magnitude of the problem.
Theories by social scientists to explain the rise in out-of-wedlock births varies. The conservatives attribute it to overly generous welfare benefits. The liberals blame the shortage of jobs for less educated men. Another popular explanation is the changing attitude toward sexual behavior of the last few decades.
Five Major Contributors
As I see it, several new societal developments converged since the 1950s, creating a toxic mix that led to the current situation.
- The birth control pill, which was introduced in the early 1960s, spread like wildfire during the 1970s. The pill started the sexual revolution, giving many women a new sense of freedom and control over their reproductive system. Many started feeling they no longer needed the protection of marriage to be sexually active. And living together without marriage became pervasive.
- Liberalized abortion laws were introduced in major states in the late 1960s and very early 1970s. The easy access to abortion further decreased the fear of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, increasing the rate of sexual activity outside of marriage.
- Shotgun marriage which was the norm in premarital sexual relations, until the 1970s (according to George A. Akerlof and Janet L.Yellen, Brookings Policy Brief Series, #5 of 186, 1996) became a thing of the past. Up to the 1970s, the stigma of unwed motherhood was so great that few women were willing to bear children outside of marriage. The custom was that “If a girl gets pregnant you married her.” But with the availability of the pill and liberalized abortion laws, shotgun marriages have slowly disappeared; and that has contributed to the rise in out-of-wedlock births.
- The rise in welfare benefits during the 1960s has also contributed to the growing problem. Single moms got higher rates of support for each added child. It paid to have more children with no husband around. And as a black graduate student of mine confided years ago: “You know what we say about you (the middle class) ‘We are having the fun and you are paying the bills.’”
- Hollywood started to glorify single motherhood and out-of-wedlock pregnancies (remember Murphy Brown in 1988?) This helped further erase the stigma of unmarried mothers.
These are 5 of the major contributors to the problem of out-of-wedlock births in the United States. What can be done to change this course? What can we do to avoid falling off the cliff?
Share with us your thoughts in the space below.
In the next segment of The Problem No One Wants to Talk About we’ll discuss possible ways to mitigate this growing problem.