Single Mothers, Many Problems

Wall Street Journal, Opinion

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A married household is still the best way to raise kids.

December 1, 2006 — The latest data on unwed motherhood — from a tabulation of official birth records throughout the U.S. by the National Center for Health Statistics — are mostly grim. In 2005, births to teenage girls continued a decline under way since the early 1990s (although half of all first babies born out of wedlock still are borne by teens). Yet after a few years of leveling off, the birthrate among unmarried mothers 20 and older has begun climbing again, especially among Hispanics.

Looking for a silver lining in a country where about 37% of children are born outside marriage, some commentators have chosen to speculate that many of today's single moms are in fact hip, prosperous women, perhaps in their 30s or older, who have decided that they don't need a husband to fulfill their dreams. We've even seen the suggestion that the unwed trend reflects America's evolution as a more tolerant, diverse country when it comes to "lifestyle choices."

Yet experts who have looked closely at the phenomenon have hardly anything positive to say. Past research indicates that the bulk of unwed births are to young women, typically in their 20s, who are not college-educated and are not prospering. There's also a mountain of evidence to suggest that children raised by such single mothers are at an increased risk for virtually every social problem you can think of — poverty, crime, drug use, etc. — including single parenthood.

Princeton Prof. Sara McLanahan directs the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which was begun to track 5,000 single mothers who gave birth between 1998 and 2000. Many were romantically involved when the study began, and many spoke approvingly of marriage. Several years on, however, few are wed, and their children often have experienced the stress of churning relationships. More and more, Ms. McLanahan says, "you're beginning to see these households composed of a mother and three children and three different ex-partners...and this is turning into a situation where children are being raised in very unstable families."

As social scientists and others look for solutions, some begin with the premise that single motherhood is a reality, so we must adjust to it with various services, such as programs designed to help mothers get better jobs. Government-funded initiatives also include couples counseling for unmarrieds, so that these parents at least function better as a team.

Missing in almost all these approaches is what the Manhattan's Institute's Kay Hymowitz refers to as "the M-word." She told us that while high-school girls may accept advice to finish their education before having children, the "wait until" message doesn't include marriage.

Perhaps that's because no one wants to sound judgmental or stigmatize single women who choose to have children. But to be truly fair — and caring — would first require telling the truth. In her new book, Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, Ms. Hymowitz documents how, by refusing to emphasize the link between marriage and successful child raising, "we have created a new demographic, which is the poor, working, single mother."

Ms. Hymowitz doesn't advocate trying to revive stigma. There's a better, more positive way. "We haven't appealed to people's rational self-interest," she says. "They don't know that they're...limiting the prosperity of their children's future." To withhold information from young women and men about the benefits of raising children in a marriage, she says, amounts to writing the young adults off: "To me, what you are doing is saying to those people that they cannot reach their potential. It's cynical."

Americans born into poverty have a long history of moving themselves, or their children, out of it. But the cycle of unwed motherhood typically leads nowhere. As a result, Ms. Hymowitz worries, ours will become a "society that is no longer mobile, where opportunities are going to be denied generation after generation."

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| Families And Marriage Book | Abstract | Family site map | Family index |

 

| Chapter 6 — Fathers And Mothers Today |

| Next — Misandry Is The Message by Barbara Kay |

| Back — Fatherhood Faces Stacked Deck In Family Court by Phyllis Schlafly |


 

Added August 26, 2007

Last modified 4/11/15