Out of wedlock childbirth rates | Heritage Foundation
Out of wedlock childbirth rates | Heritage Foundation

Bad title

Why draw attention only to the fathers? Clearly there must be quite a few unmarried mothers out there as well. I hope this isn’t suggesting that deciding to take a relationship into marriage is somehow only or primarily the man’s responsibility. Both women and men have agency around the marital decision. It would be nice if cultural constructs supported equal opportunity for popping the question…but headlines that emphasize men’s agency over women aren’t going to get us any closer to equality on that front.

What works

It’s nice to see that this graph points out where definitions of racial categories change. It is also nice that it draws attention to the problem that many American children are being born into poverty or at least situations where resources are extremely constrained. In another graph elsewhere, the same group also reminds us that these births are largely NOT happening to teen parents.

The other critical point is that out of wedlock births are on the rise even though birth rates for teen mothers are declining. If in the past it was possible to think that the problem is just that teens are out having unprotected sex that leads to accidental births, we can no longer be so sure that this is what is happening. Age at first sex is decreasing which means that most of the people having children out of wedlock are capable of having sex without getting pregnant. They probably have been doing just that for years. Having children out of wedlock is best understood to be a choice, then, not an accident. Any efforts to prevent child poverty are probably not going to be successful if they rest on sex ed or free condoms (though I personally believe those things are important for other reasons). The American Heritage Foundation believes that if people would just get married, these kids wouldn’t be born into poverty. Others aren’t so sure it’s that simple.

What needs work

The problem with the write-up accompanying this chart is that it implies that the causal mechanism goes something like this: for whatever reason couples have children together but do not get married. The failure to get married means that these children will be far more likely to be raised in poor or impoverished conditions. For emphasis, I’ll restate: the parents’ failure to marry one another leads to children being raised in poverty.

Now. Here’s what I have to say about the chart. First, if that is the message, why not depict the out-of-wedlock birth rate by poverty status, preferably poverty status prior to pregnancy? I’d settle for poverty status at some set time – like the child’s birth or first birthday, but that isn’t as good. I feel like showing these numbers by race is subtly racist, implying that race matters here when what really matters is poverty, at least according to the story that they are telling and the story that many marriage scholars care about. Yes, it is true that poverty and racial status (still) covary rather tightly in America, but if the story being told is about poverty, I’d like to see the chart address that directly rather than through the lens of race. Furthermore, if race DOES matter, where are Asians? American Indians?

Moving away from the chart for a moment and getting back to the causal story, marriage researcher Andrew Cherlin finds that the causal arrow might go the other way. Being poor may be a critical factor in preventing folks from getting married. William Julius Wilson was an earlier proponent of this concept, especially with respect to poor African Americans. His work suggested that during and after the post-industrial decline in urban manufacturing jobs, African American men were systematically excluded from the work force and this made them appear to be poor marital material. Cherlin’s more recent work applies more broadly, not specifically to African American men, and bolsters the idea that marriage is something Americans of all backgrounds feel they shouldn’t get into until they are economically comfortable. What ‘comfortable’ means varies a lot, but most people like to have steady full-time jobs, they like to be confident that they won’t get evicted, that the heat or electricity will not be turned off, that they will have enough to eat.

The more important question would be: why don’t these assumptions apply to having children? Whereas getting married can represent an economic gain if you are marrying a working spouse, having children certainly does not (state subsidies do not cover the full cost of having children no matter how little the children’s parents make). Perhaps what we are faced with is people for whom getting married may not represent an economic gain. Marrying a person without a steady job could present more of a drain on your resources than staying single, whether or not you have kids.