Study: Unwed Mothers Account for Nearly Half of First Births in US

Posted: Mar 25, 2013 10:16 AM

This trend line has been headed in an alarming direction for decades, but hitting the 50 percent threshold only seems like a matter of time at this point.  We're almost there already (via the Washington Times):

Some 48 percent of first births in America are now to unmarried women. This means “the nation is at a tipping point, on the verge of moving into a new demographic reality, where the majority of first births in the United States precede marriage,” said the study, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” released by several organizations including the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. This emerging trend is alarming, as social scientists have long linked unwed childbearing with poverty, family instability, school failure, substance abuse and mental-health problems. But bringing marriage and childbearing “back into sync” will not an easy task, study co-author Kay Hymowitz, who joined other family and economic policy scholars Wednesday at a Brookings Institution event. “Of course, we also recognize that marriage is not for everyone, and that not all parents can or should get married,” Ms. Hymowitz wrote in the report. But when 20-somethings are in a good relationship, they may want to “marry earlier than today’s social norms suggest,” and other 20-somethings may want to postpone parenthood “until they are in a relationship with someone whom they would choose as a good partner for life.”

There are moral arguments to be made against out of wedlock births, but some people aren't interested in being "scolded" about morality.  Fine.  This pattern also also fuels a core sociological crisis that affect every American.   It is established social science that children from intact two-parent households are statistically less likely to be poor, to fail in school, to develop substance abuse issues, and to go to jail.  Simply put, marriage is one of the most effective sources of social stability known to man.  The increasing percentage of women who have their first child before tying the knot speaks to an American marriage crisis that has nothing to do with the issue of same-sex marriage.  (Indeed, less than five percent of the US population identifies as gay or lesbian, despite a public perception that the number is far greater).  Writer David Frum -- of whom I'm not a great fan -- penned an important column on this subject last month:

Among the 95% to 97% of Americans who are not gay, the institution of marriage continues to weaken -- with ominous consequences for the next generation. About 40% of all the babies born in the United States are born to unmarried women. Just about everybody agrees that this is a worrying development... Of course there are exceptions to every rule. On average, however, children born to unmarried women do worse in all kinds of important ways compared to children born to married couples... The dwindling of marriage is both cause and consequence of America's evolution away from a society of equal chances. The restoration of marriage is crucial to reviving the middle class and offering hope to the poor. Marriage means two incomes at a time when most Americans find two incomes essential to earning a middle-class livelihood. Marriage secures the active presence of fathers in children's lives. Marriage means more asset accumulation: Married families save more at every income level. Marriage means fewer accidents and illnesses, less stress, and more happiness and personal fulfillment. Yet even as we reach a new social consensus about marriage's importance, marriage seems to have become increasingly elusive, difficult, and uncertain.  

The Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector has explored the relationship between family structure and poverty in depth, discovering enormous disparities between the financial well being of two parent vs. single parent households.  Here are a handful of charts illustrating the statistical evidence (bear in mind that poverty has reached an all-time high in the United States):

None of this data is intended to shame or scapegoat single parents, particularly single mothers; in many cases, absentee fathers shoulder the majority of the blame for the status broken families.  These unwed parents -- many of whom work heroically to provide for their children -- aren't the cause of these social ills, but we also cannot afford to wish away the numbers out of respect and empathy for single moms.  Which brings us back to the eminent importance of marriage.  It seems as though our political class is fixated on the wrong marriage discussion -- while we fight over the legal rights of a relatively tiny handful same-sex couples, the broader institution withers on the vine, to the detriment of us all.  I'll leave you with with a pro-life coda: Even though single parenthood is far from ideal (as established above), we must also value a culture of life, in which children are welcomed into the world regardless of the marital status of their parents.  We must never the tragic dystopia of Russia, for instance, where up to 70 percent of pregnancies end in abortion, precipitating a deepening demographic crisis.

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