Is Lack of Marriage the Real Problem?

Marriage is now a hot topic in Washington policy circles. Ensuring that more children are born and raised within marriage is, in my view, a worthy objective. Marriage as a value has begun to disappear from the cultural lexicon, and affirmative efforts to underscore its importance, especially to children, should not be dismissed. But this begs the question of what states or the federal government realistically can do to promote it.

The problem is not that people don’t marry. Ninety percent of all American women are married by the age of 45. The problem is early childbearing. Until they are in their mid-twenties, more women have had babies than have married. After the mid-twenties, the numbers reverse. The issue, then, is timing. We don’t need to encourage more people to marry unless our goal is to reach 100 percent married (which, incidentally, would require that we legalize same-sex marriages). What we need instead is to stop people from having babies before they get married. Most of these births are unintended and most are the result of early unprotected sex.

The place to start, obviously, is with teenagers. Although only 30 percent of all out-of-wedlock births are to teens, half of first out-of-wedlock births are to women under the age of 20. Having had a first baby outside marriage, these teens often drop out of school, go on welfare, and have additional children in their twenties without marrying. In other words, the problem isn’t limited to teens but it typically begins in the teenage years. And these families started by a teen mother are the ones most at risk of long-term poverty and a host of other problems.

Will more marriage solve this problem? Hardly. Marriages among teenagers are notoriously unstable. In addition, once a woman has become a single mother, her chances of marrying anyone other than the father of her child are greatly reduced. New research by Daniel Lichter shows that this failure to marry is mostly a result of the presence of children rather than the characteristics of the mothers themselves. It seems obvious, but marriage advocates seem not to have noticed that young men are reluctant to take responsibility for someone else’s child. William Julius Wilson long ago popularized the notion that the absence of marriageable males in many distressed urban black communities inhibits marriage. What Lichter is finding is that there’s a shortage of marriageable females in general.

Better-educated women are increasingly delaying both marriage and childbearing until they are in their mid- to late twenties and even older. This pattern is consistent with spending more time in school and with establishing a career path before taking on family responsibilities. Our goal should be to help less-educated women follow a similar path. The alternative—to encourage girls in their teens or early twenties to marry—is not consistent with society’s interest in encouraging people to acquire the skills needed in the new economy or with the job opportunities available to today’s young women.

Moreover, older parents are usually better parents, so this strategy would work to improve child well-being. And later marriages are much more stable. So if we want to discourage divorce, this makes sense as well. Indeed, age at marriage is the primary predictor of marital stability.

If early childbearing is the problem, what is the solution? Haven’t efforts to reduce teen pregnancies and births been a failure? Ten years ago the answer to this question might have been yes. But there are now reasons for much greater optimism. First of all, teen pregnancies and birthrates have declined sharply in the 1990s. Between 1991 and 2000, the teen birthrate declined 22 percent to 48.5 births per 1,000 females 15 to 19 years old. (The declines were especially sharp for black teens.) Because so many of these teen births are to unmarried women, this decline has contributed very directly to a leveling off of the proportion of all children born outside marriage in the late 1990s.

But there is a second reason to be optimistic. Recent research has found a number of programs that effectively prevent teen pregnancies. These include sex-education programs that encourage abstinence but also teach about birth control, and youth-development programs such as after-school mentoring or community service. Another promising approach is public-service ad campaigns that use the power of the media to reach large numbers of teens in a way that will never be possible through community-based efforts or classroom instruction alone.

Conservatives want to reduce early out-of-wedlock pregnancies by funding “abstinence only” education programs. The Bush administration’s budget proposes to increase funding for these from $102 million to $135 million. These programs have not been adequately evaluated and, so far, their effectiveness has not been proven. That doesn’t mean that encouraging abstinence is a bad idea. Teen-pregnancy rates dropped in the 1990s because of more abstinence and more or better use of birth control. Nor does it mean that encouraging people to delay childbearing until they are married is a bad idea. But government programs and sex-education curricula dictated from Washington are not the best way of achieving these goals. Instead, we should focus on empowering parents, schools, and nonprofit organizations, including those that are religiously affiliated, to send the message that children are better off with two committed parents who are married to each other. That means delaying unprotected sex and unwanted births.

Given these facts, what should Congress do when it reauthorizes the welfare law this year? First, lawmakers should not expect that most states would know what to do with funds earmarked for encouraging marriage or that their efforts are likely to be very successful. While there is nothing wrong with experimenting with marriage-education and counseling programs, so far there is little or no evidence to show that they will succeed. These programs are untested and don’t tackle the real source of the problem, which is not a failure to marry but rather a failure to delay childbearing until marriage. Some people argue that we should aim marriage-counseling efforts at young cohabiting couples who have already had a baby. Maybe this will work. But it’s a lot like trying to put the horse back in the barn. One hears a lot of talk about how we should support unwed fathers but not much about how to prevent them from becoming fathers in the first place.

For all these reasons, it would be better to provide states with flexible funding that could be used for a variety of efforts. This aid should be tied to success in achieving the basic purposes of the law, including its family-formation objectives. Based on existing research and experience, one of the most effective strategies states could choose if they want to reduce welfare dependency, child poverty, and the growth of single-parent families would be to emphasize programs that have a proven track record in reducing teen pregnancy. But let them choose from the full menu of approaches depending on their own assessment of the evidence and on local community values.

Finally, any diversion of resources from the more basic task of supporting needy families and “making work pay” would be unwise. Messages about marriage and about teen-pregnancy prevention need to target the younger generation. Those who are already single parents have little choice but to do the best job they can at making a living and raising their children, and they need our help.