WASHINGTON — 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.
``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
Children of single parents are not destined for failure. Leaders from Bill Clinton to Bill Bennett, the leading champion of cultural conservatism, spent all or part of their youths in single-parent households.
Yet, on balance, children in single-parent homes perform more poorly in school, drop out more often, engage earlier in sexual activity, use drugs more often, and commit more crimes. But this may only reflect the fact that single-motherhood is more common in social environments where these problems are also more common.
There is some evidence that children of divorce generally fare worse than children of two-parent families. No one has found clear evidence that single parenthood leads to more of these other problems in children.
Christopher Jencks, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Illinois, notes that the rise in crime and sexual activity among teens has risen among two-parent families as well.
But single parenthood is clearly tougher economically than the traditional partnership. Just as two incomes have become more necessary than ever for many families, fewer children have two parents to meet the family budget, not to mention their emotional and moral needs.
The two common theories of the cause at the heart of the decline of marriage are: 1) the decline of jobs and wages for unskilled or semiskilled men since the early 1970s and 2) a loss beginning in the 1960s of the social stigma attached to premarital sex.
Liberals typically argue that the economic shift is the root cause, while traditional-values conservatives argue that the moral shift is primary.
Increasingly, both experts and politicians, including Clinton, argue that both explanations work together.
The welfare system takes some of the blame for making single parenthood more economically feasible. This does not explain the rise in unwed motherhood among the affluent. Galston says that scholarly estimates of how much of the increase in out-of-wedlock births is due to the structure of the welfare system range between 15 and 30 percent.
The economic explanation is that increasing numbers of young men find it more difficult to support a family, since the quality of jobs they can find with relatively few skills has declined in the past two decades.
It has also made parenthood more difficult for two-parent families. Falling wages mean more hours of work are necessary, often for both parents, leaving less time and energy for children.
``I think so many parents are so exhausted by the rigors of earning a living in the marketplace these days, they have less and less energy to devote to their kids,'' says Galston, who is an exhausted parent himself.
The cultural explanation includes the elevation of ``the rights of adults to behave as they wish at the expense of their responsibilities to children,'' according to Galston.
``We need, not a wholesale reversal, but a midcourse correction,'' he says.
He agrees with Dr. Jencks, however, that the most fundamental shift in the culture is the greater acceptance of premarital sex, which has led to fewer marriages.
Senator Moynihan cites the history of Irish Americans, whose families and communities were wracked with drunkenness, abuse, and desertion in the 19th century, until concerted efforts in the decades after the Civil War rebuilt the values and institutions of American society.
The economy of the 1960s, with its good wages for unskilled work, is not expected to return. Policymakers put more hope in training more Americans for better jobs.
``It seems likely that if you can raise the employment and wage prospects for the bottom quarter of men, then more of them would be able to support a family the way Americans feel you ought to,'' Jencks says.
On the cultural front, an increasing number of programs and movements are promoting virginity until marriage among young people and responsibility and commitment among men of all ages.
The most effective are often church-based. When he worked in the Reagan administration, Mr. Bauer says, ``we were often struck by how often, when some program worked, it was church-based. It offered some more transcendent sense of what it means to be human.''