Marriage, Parenthood, and Public Policy

June 19, 2014

America has been undergoing profound changes in family composition over the last four decades. In 1970, according to that year’s decennial census, 83% of women ages 30 to 34 were married. By 2010, that number had fallen to 57%. This drastic decline in marriage rates has coincided with a steep increase in the non-marital birth rate among all demographic groups, from 11% to almost 41% over the same four decades. In 2010, an astounding 72% of births to African-American women were out of wedlock.

These dramatic changes are made all the more significant by the ways in which family composition appears to be related to important social, behavioral, and economic characteristics. Children raised by single parents are more likely to display delinquent and illegal behavior. Daughters raised by single mothers are more likely to engage in early sexual activity and become pregnant; their brothers are twice as likely to spend time in jail as their peers raised by married parents. They are less likely to finish high school or get a college degree. And they are four to five times as likely to live in poverty as are children raised by married parents. These intergenerational trends are prominent among both the causes and effects of America’s limited social mobility.

Thus, as the nation confronts the stubborn problems of economic inequality and immobility, the rise in the number of single-parent families matters a great deal. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s paved the way for these massive shifts in family life, and these shifts are now making it more difficult for a huge portion of the current generation to get its fair shot in the land of opportunity.

So what is to be done? Answers are difficult to find, but it’s not for lack of trying. Both public and private institutions have attempted over the past four decades to decrease the rate of births to unmarried women, either by providing birth control or abstinence education or by encouraging marriage. The federal government has spent billions of dollars trying to counteract the poverty and other social consequences that follow in the wake of the breakdown of the family.

The results so far have been mixed at best, but they do suggest some patterns. Some kinds of interventions appear to make a modest difference on the margins, while others appear to be almost entirely ineffectual. But analyses of these patterns are too often distorted by ideological commitments on all sides. Given the magnitude of the problem, it is essential that analysts and policymakers come to terms with what our experience can teach us so they can seek to build on what works. It is easy to stand back and say that government can’t make families, and it is also surely true. But it is nonetheless apparent that there are some ways that public policy, working together with the institutions of American civil society, can help create the circumstances to better enable families to form.

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