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Both Conservatives and Liberals Decry Rapid Increase in Single-Parent Families

By Marshall IngwersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1994


AS recent United States Census studies reveal further erosion of the two-parent American family, the tone of public talk about single parenthood appears to be shifting as well.

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``You shouldn't have a baby before you're ready, and you shouldn't have a baby when you're not married,'' President Clinton told the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans on Friday, renewing a theme he has sounded before.

Nearly 30 years ago, a young bureaucrat in the Johnson administration named Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued a warning that with 1 in 5 black babies born out of wedlock, the decay of the black family augured social disaster.

Now the share of white babies born to unwed mothers has risen to that same level. Meanwhile, married black women are having far fewer children so that today 2 of 3 black children are born to single mothers.

Mr. Moynihan, now a Democratic US senator from New York, was roundly accused of attacking black families. And when Dan Quayle decried Hollywood two years ago for glamorizing television's ``Murphy Brown'' in her choice to have a baby out of wedlock, he was roundly ridiculed in the press and on entertainment television.

Last Thursday, Mr. Quayle repeated his views in a speech in San Francisco. But this time Mr. Clinton echoed many of the same points the following day in speech in New Orleans.

Last spring, The Atlantic Monthly ran a cover story titled ``Dan Quayle Was Right.'' In July, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala stated in a congressional hearing that no public official ought to condone out-of-wedlock childbearing.

``We have to work very hard at the cultural message,'' says White House deputy domestic-policy adviser William Galston, who works on family issues. ``We have to do everything we can to convince teens that teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births are the ticket to diminished opportunities.''

Dr. Galston cites the antismoking drives of a few decades ago, and the antidrug drive of the mid-1980s as examples of how social attitudes can shift as the result of what opinion leaders say.

``When the leading institutions of society speak with one voice, it makes a difference,'' he notes.

It is not clear yet that American institutions are speaking with one voice about single parenthood, but those discouraging it are gaining in prominence.

Their message is becoming clearer too. If Quayle two years ago seemed to be attacking unwed mothers, a group that already has its hands full, then last week he was clear that at least as much responsibility lies with men who fail to fulfill obligations toward their children.

``All of us know single parents that do heroic jobs,'' says Gary Bauer of the conservative Family Research Council. ``I'm aware of two-parent families doing a lousy job.''

But most children have better odds at success and happiness if their parents are married, he says.

What's happening to families

Children are losing parents. About half of all children today will live in a single-parent household sometime before they reach the age of 16. In 1992, 23 percent of children lived in mother-only households, triple the amount in 1960.

One reason: The divorce rate more than doubled in the 1960s and 1970s, although it leveled off in the 1980s. The faster growing factor is the rise of out-of-wedlock childbearing.

Black women are far more likely to have children outside of marriage than are white, Asian, or Hispanic women. Women of any race with lower education levels are more likely to be single parents.

The greatest change, however, is in the increasing share of out-of-wedlock births to women who are white, more highly educated, in managerial or professional jobs, and in their 20s or 30s, according to a 1993 census report.

``This is a tidal wave that is engulfing the entire population,'' Galston says.

Contrary to popular belief, the birth rate to unwed black women held roughly stable through the 1970s and 1980s.

The increase in the proportion of black out of wedlock births has been driven by a sharp drop in the birth rate of married black women. An unmarried black woman is now more likely to have a child than is a married black woman.

What it means