We still think of the archetypal unwed mother as a Jamie Lynn Spears—a dopey teenager who dropped her panties and got in over her head. A generation and more ago, that's who most unwed mothers were. But according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, teenagers account for only 23 percent of current out-of-wedlock births. That means the vast majority of unwed mothers are old enough to know what they're doing: Unwed births are surging among women ages 25 to 29.
In the last 50 years, there has been an extraordinary decoupling of marriage and procreation. In 1960 about 5 percent of births were to unwed mothers; that figure is now a record high of nearly 40 percent. Out-of-wedlock births used to be such a source of shame that families tried to hide them: Singer Bobby Darin was born to a teen mother and raised to believe she was his sister. But now out-of-wedlock births are greeted with a shrug. Some say they're an understandable response to economic realities. Others say they're a liberating change from the shotgun-wedding ethic that shackled two unsuitable people together for life.
As Slate's advice columnist, Dear Prudence, I get constant reports from the people who are creating the statistics. When I extol the importance of marriage in the advice column, my inbox fills with e-mails from readers who don't see marriage as the passage from single life to a life of commitment. To them, the marriage certificate is the first document in a paper trail that will end with a divorce decree. This doesn't mean my correspondents conclude that men and women shouldn't form unions and even live together, just that it may be wiser not to make your love life official. "Legal ties are supposed to make it somehow legit? With the divorce rate as high as it is, a live-in girlfriend is just as good," wrote one.
Readers also like to rebuke me for my preference that two decent people who are committed to each other and find themselves procreating without intending to should provide the stability of marriage for their child. "Having a child will be stressful and life altering enough. Parents need to work on their relationship on their time schedule." "I feel that a baby is its own blessing. Have that blessing before you get married." "How dare you imply that an unexpected pregnancy should lead to marriage? You are simply out of touch with modern culture."
That may be. But it also means that modern culture is out of touch with the needs of children. Some researchers identify out-of-wedlock births as the chief cause for the increasing stratification and inequality of American life, the first step that casts children into an ever more rigid caste system. Studies have found that children born to single mothers are vastly more likely to be poor, have behavioral and psychological problems, drop out of high school, and themselves go on to have out-of-wedlock children.
For 10 years, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study at Princeton University has followed the families of 5,000 children, three-quarters born to unwed parents. According to the research, most of these parents, both women and men, said they wanted to get married—and to each other. But they somehow feel this mutual decision is beyond their power to make. And by not making it, the forces of inertia start pulling them apart. Five years after their children's births, only 16 percent of the couples had married, and 60 percent had split.
Among the most poignant letters I get are those from young women wondering whether they will ever convince the father of their children finally to marry them. "My boyfriend and I have a 4-year-old son. We've broken up but realized that we truly are meant for one another. My father was diagnosed with stage four cancer last year, and I've made it known to my boyfriend how important it is for me to have my father with me when I get married. When I bring up marriage to my boyfriend his reply is we will get married, I promise, but he has not asked me."
That out-of-wedlock births are a problem for society does get some political attention—the kind of attention that shows there's not a good plan for what to do about them. Mitt Romney mentioned the statistics in his presidential withdrawal speech. He cites declining religious observance, easily available pornography, and the possibility of gay marriage as the causes—a platform that seems unlikely to reverse the birth trends. Barack Obama, who grew up without a father, believes that a central reason for the ever-increasing rates is the difficult economic circumstances of the working class. In one speech on fatherhood, he talked about the need for government programs to help men become more of a presence in their children's lives and admonished fathers to take their duties seriously. But he didn't mention that one key to effective fatherhood is first becoming a husband.
Economists believe humans act rationally (a somewhat irrational belief, if you ask me), so some conclude that all this out-of-wedlock childbearing is a logical response to market forces, not the result of something as amorphous as "culture." Since many working-class men do not offer the financial stability they used to provide, women see little incentive to marry them. As Obama said, "[M]any black men simply cannot afford to raise a family." (The out-of-wedlock birthrate among black Americans is close to 70 percent.) I'm trying to follow the logic here. I can understand that a woman looking to get married may decide that a man is such a poor economic prospect that he's not husband material (even if a husband with a low income is better than no husband and no income). But how then is that same man, or a string of them, worthy of fathering her children?