Maggie Gallagher
A new Pew poll was released this week to great fanfare and an Associated Press story that highlighted just one of its findings: a large drop since 1990 in the proportion of Americans who see children as "very important" to a "successful" marriage. The Pew study itself however has a very different headline: "As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact."

One key finding: Americans have a problem with unmarried childbearing. The Pew poll asked this question in a variety of ways: Seventy-one percent of Americans say the growth in births to unwed mothers is a "big problem" for society, while 69 percent agree "A child needs a home with both a mother and father to grow up happily." By a margin of 66 percent to 25 percent, Americans say that "single women having children" is a trend that is "bad for society," rather than "good."

The breadth of this consensus across lines of age, race and education is striking: Seventy percent of whites and 67 percents of black agree it's a bad trend for society (as do 54 percent of Hispanics). Seventy-two percent of senior citizens say it's a bad thing, but so do 65 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds. Sixty-eight percent of college grads worry about unmarried childbearing, but so do 65 percent of Americans with only a high school degree or less.

Sixty-seven percent of those in households making at least $100,000 a year see single parenting as a negative trend, but so do 62 percent of those in households making less than $30,000. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans say it is a bad trend, but so do 61 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Independents. Eighty-seven percent of white Evangelicals say it's a bad trend for society, but so do about two-thirds of white mainline Protestants, white Catholics and black Protestants.

Even 61 percent of never-married parents agree a child needs a mom and a dad, and 54 percent of never married parents say the trend of single women having kids is bad for society.

In fact the only group in which less than a majority agree that single women having children is bad for society are the "seculars." Forty-five percent of seculars say single women having children is bad for society, while 41 percent say it is a good thing -- which kind of makes one wonder about the reality-base of this particular community.

But Pew also asked the same question in a slightly different way: What do you think of the trend of unmarried (START ITAL) couples having children? Overall, the level of concern dropped slightly, with 59 percent of the general public saying it's a bad thing (still a 2-1 margin opposed). But a significant generation gap emerges: Among 18 to 29-year-olds just 46 percent say unmarried couples having children is a bad thing and 45 percent say it is a good thing for society. The biggest drop off is among Hispanic Catholics: Fifty-two percent disapprove of "single women having children," but only 37 percent say unmarried couples having children is a bad thing for society.

On gay marriage, Americans are against it 57 to 32 percent. Even young adults ages 18 to 29 oppose gay marriage 46 percent to 44 percent.

The next generation is persuaded that children need a mom and a dad. They are less convinced that marriage is the key to giving children that gift. Closing that loop in the mind of young adults is the key to marriage's -- and children's -- future.


Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.