John Leo

The center found that the two-parent trend is concentrated largely among the poor. The Urban Institute reported roughly similar news last fall: The proportion of children living in single-parent families decreased from 1997 to 1999, particularly among the poor. And a year ago, a large-scale evaluation of welfare reform in Minnesota found a broad array of positive effects, including an increase in marriage rates and marital stability.

Can a reform passed in August 1996 be credited with social change noticed as early as 1997? Yes, says Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation -- in 1996 everyone affected by welfare heard the message of time limits and work requirments, and many began to re-evaluate their options even before the changes were implemented.

Primus, who quit the Clinton administration in 1996 to protest the president's decision to sign the welfare legislation, now says that "in some ways, it is working better than I thought." Former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once predicted that by 2004 half of American babies could be born out of wedlock. Apparently not. The trend, though still a modest one, is headed the other way.

"Why isn't the press all over this story?" asked Mickey Kaus, the Internet commentator. "Is it because it's not PC on the left to admit marriage is good? Is it because acknowledging the shift requires cynical reporters to admit that a public policy initiative (welfare reform) actually worked?" (Correct answers: Yes, and yes.)

If the newsroom is so reluctant to risk any fresh reporting on the family, why is it likely that Time or some other newsy magazine will run a pro-marriage cover? Because a big magazine cover story on a trend needs supporting examples from the pop culture, and those examples are all around us. "Let's Get married" by Jagged Edge hit No. 1 on the R&B chart last summer. A new Gallup survey of women in their 20s found great yearning for a lifelong "soulmate." Some famously unmarried women gave up the single life, including Gloria Steinem ("A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"), who acquired her first bicycle, hubby David Bale. Hip publications like the New York Observer are running long pieces on the pro-marriage trend ("Matrimonial Mania Takes Manhattan.")

This is the way topics make their way up the journalistic food chain. But beneath the pop stuff, a real story is taking shape: Starting around 1990, many statistics on sex and relationships started to change. Since the early 1990s, the abortion rate fell by almost a third, and teen pregnancies by 19 percent. The new stats on out-of-wedlock births appear to be part of this slowly building retrenchment. Whatever it is, reporters are going to have to pay attention.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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