Scholar Kay Hymowitz, author of Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, turns the argument around and says it's not that harsh economic conditions lead to women having children without fathers, but that the decision to have children without fathers leads to harsh, and self-perpetuating, economic conditions. She explains that having the belief that a solid marriage is central to one's life—that it precedes starting a family—encourages women and men to make important choices based on self-discipline and deliberation. This is a formula "needed for upward mobility, qualities all the more important in a tough new knowledge economy."
I get letters all the time that describe the turbulence that results from deciding marriage is archaic. Sometimes the writers start with a conflicted sense of hope. "My ex is rather immature and irresponsible. I had a recent fling with him that resulted in pregnancy. I am overjoyed with the impending arrival of my baby, but I fear that no one else in my life will feel the same way." This is followed by more conflicted and less hopeful letters when the kids are small. "My boyfriend and I have a child who is almost 2. He also has a daughter and I have two other children. We bought a home together, but a week before we were about to move in, he left me. Now it's four months later, and he's bought me an engagement ring, but I found out he had a girlfriend during the time we were split." "I have two children with my ex-boyfriend. We broke up because last year a paternity test he was ordered to have came back positive. Even though we are not together, I still want my kids to have a father in their life. I also know he is ignoring his new son because he wants nothing to do with the mom, but that little boy also deserves to have a male figure who cares."
Having unmarried parents can be devastating for children who start out with no cushion in life. In 1999 congressional testimony, Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution said that the increase in single-parent families—mostly due to unwed motherhood in the past few decades—"can account for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since 1970." A recent study found that the stress of early childhood poverty can literally damage developing brains.
Hymowitz points out that all classes of Americans once followed the same life script of marriage before children. When divorce rates started soaring in the 1970s, everyone was fleeing their marriages. But then the classes started diverging. The Economist cites statistics that show among college-educated women married between 1990 and 1994, only 16.5 percent were divorced 10 years later. Among those with a high-school education or less who married in those same years, about 40 percent were divorced after a decade.
And to avoid the trauma of divorce, those with less education began forgoing marriage altogether. Better-educated women, who once upon a time were at a disadvantage in finding a mate, "are now more likely to marry than their non-college peers," according to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. It turns out that outside Hollywood, there aren't too many Murphy Browns—successful, educated women who choose to have children alone. The Murphy Browns actually get married: Only 4 percent of college graduates have children out of wedlock.
It's important to offer some caveats. I am not—the researchers are not—advising marriage at all costs. "Dear Prudence" letter writers should not marry the jerks whom they had drunken procreative sex with and hope never to see again. Nor do I recommend entering into a union with a clearly unstable, unsuitable partner. A survey by the Center for Law and Social Policy on the benefits for children of having married parents did come to the anodyne conclusion that "high conflict" marriages can be as bad for children as having never-married parents. I know. My parents had a "high conflict," violent marriage; I don't recommend it for anyone. Also, growing up in ideal circumstances is no guarantee that one's life will be a happy success, just as growing up in difficult ones does not doom one to be a troubled failure. (See Barack Obama.)
But perhaps in our desire not to make moral judgments about personal choices, young women wholly unprepared to be mothers are not getting the message that there are dire consequences of having (unprotected) sex with guys too lame to be fathers. There is a scene in the teen pregnancy movie Juno in which the title character, a 16-year-old who has decided not to abort her unplanned baby but to give it up for adoption, is having an ultrasound. The technician, thinking she has on the examining table another knocked-up teenager planning to raise her child, makes disparaging remarks about children born into those circumstances. We are supposed to loathe this character and cheer when Juno's stepmother puts her in her place. But I found myself sympathetic to the technician. Why is it verboten to express the truth that growing up with a lonely, overwhelmed mother and a missing father is a recipe for childhood pain?