Society has a stake in any parent who raises a child out of wedlock. Poverty, drug use, and crime are usually higher in such – mainly fatherless – families. In 2005, a record 37 percent of US births were to single women. Is there hope they will ever marry?
For a decade now, starting with the 1996 welfare reform bill, government has spent millions on the optimistic belief that unwed moms can be nudged to the altar through grass-roots programs that promote marriage (by incentives, not coercion) or teach relationship skills to teens.
One program in Washington, D.C., even provides minigrants up to $12,000 to help at-risk individuals form families within marriage or learn responsible parenting.
The task, however, is becoming more difficult because more single moms are older. The latest figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show an unexpected rise in single women over 20 with children, while the birthrate for teens has fallen to its lowest on record – yes, that's right, fallen.
Even though half of children born out of wedlock are still to teens, the fact that many more teens have been coached away from becoming single parents shows that somebody is doing something right, whether it's government, schools, churches, or – let us pray – Hollywood.
But the message isn't reaching adults. Among women ages 20 to 24, more than half of their births in 2005 were outside marriage. For women 25-29, the figure was nearly a third, while mothers 30-39, the out-of-wedlock birthrate was more than 15 percent, or twice the rate of three decades ago.
This year, Congress decided to spend more than half-a-billion dollars on marriage promotion over the next five years – with no clear proof such programs actually work. Yet such spending reveals the urgency to repair this growing rupture in society and regain the emotional, economic, and moral balance that a two-parent, married family brings to children.
The more than 200 federal programs come with guidance against stigmatizing unwed mothers or forcing them to remain in a violent relationship. The most urgent need is among blacks and Hispanics – more than 2 thirds of black children are born out of wedlock, while the figure is almost half for Hispanics.
That help is wanted. Nearly 4 out of 5 single black moms want to be married. And statistics are clear that a married, two-parent household is the best guarantee to keep children out of poverty. One study found poverty rates would have been dramatically lower if the family structure had not changed so much since 1960.
The easiest targets for marriage promotion are cohabiting couples. Nearly half of children born out of wedlock are to women who live with a man but are not married. Such couples already show some commitment to each other and, especially if one of them has kids, they may recognize the benefits of marriage to the children. When cohabiting couples do marry, their poverty rate falls from 19.5 to 16.1 percent.
Such figures suggest that compassion and reason, not social stigmatizing, are better ways to lower the nonmarital birthrate. Success in reducing unwed teen pregnancies shows it can be done for young adults, too.