The Good Big News (That Nobody's Reporting)

Political commentary and more.
June 20 2001 5:40 PM

The Good Big News (That Nobody's Reporting)

Remember the rise of single-motherhood--the big, unstoppable demographic trend that was said to underlie all sorts of social ills, especially for low-income minorities?


Well don't tell anybody, but the unstoppable trend has stopped. In fact, it's being reversed.

In an important study, Allen Dupree and Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have analyzed Census data and discovered that single-parenthood, which had been rising for decades, has started to decline.

The turnaround occurred between 1995 and 2000, Dupree and Primus report, when "the percentage of children younger than 18 living with a single mother declined from 19.9 percent to 18.4 percent--a statistically significant drop ... of 8 percent." In the preceding decade, from 1985-1995, the percentage of children living in single-mother homes had increased by a nearly equal percentage.

Did something conspicuous happen between 1995 and 2000 that might have caused this positive shift? Yes--or at least something happened that was supposed to cause the shift, namely the 1996 welfare reform. That law, which President Clinton signed over the objection of many Democrats, proclaimed an intention "to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families." The idea was that if young women knew that--were they to became single mothers--welfare wouldn't support them on a no-strings basis, they would then make different, and better, decisions. As hard as it is to believe that a major government reform actually had its intended effect--especially a grandiose effect like restoring the family--that seems to be what has happened.

This wasn't what experts--on both the left and right--predicted before the law passed. The rise of the single-parenthood, after all, was a huge, decades-long, global demographic wave, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan tirelessly pointed out. Liberals routinely scoffed at the idea that young hormone-filled teen-agers and twentysomethings would change their sexual behavior just because they might not get welfare years down the road.

Many conservative experts scoffed too. At one point, virtue theorists James Q. Wilson and William Bennett trooped up to Capitol Hill to dismiss the idea that changing mere welfare rules could reverse the decay of the two-parent family. "[Y]ou cannot fix this problem. You are only the federal government," barked Bennett. As if Washington could do any good!

It's now possible to start saying that these people were wrong, and the welfare reformers were right. The good demographic news is most evident among the low-income families who tend to be affected by welfare--and among blacks, who are still heavily impacted by welfare rules. (One startling study a few years ago determined that, of black children born from 1967 through 1969, 72 percent spent at least some time on welfare before they reached age 18.)

For low-income children, Dupree and Primus found, the percentage living in single-parent homes rose from 32.6 percent to 34.2 percent between 1985 and 1995--but has since reversed and fallen back to around its 1985 level. (For better-off families, there was no such reversal.)

Among blacks, meanwhile, marriage seems to be staging a significant comeback. The percentage of all black children raised by married parents jumped from 34.8 percent to 38.9 percent during the period, a 10 percent increase in just five years. If you include children raised by unmarried mothers who are cohabiting with men--in other words, if you count all children being raised in homes with a male and a female parent--the jump is 15 percent. Simultaneously, Dupree and Primus report, "[b]lack children also saw a significant decline in the proportion living with a single mother between 1995 and 2000. ... Neither of these trends was apparent in the late 1980s."