Fifty years ago, the pioneers of the War on Poverty saw no need to call for a strengthening of the American family as a critical component to combating poverty. At the time, marriage—centered around motherhood and the man of the family—was still the prevailing norm for raising children and staving off poverty.
The goal of the War on Poverty was to assist families in poverty with greater access to basic food, education, housing, and job training to increase their economic prospects,1 and to enable nuclear families to thrive. Families were the first line of defense against poverty.2
But one year after President Lyndon B. Johnson officially launched the War on Poverty, a young government official at the U.S. Department of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, began to look at trends in the African American community. He worried that the rise in the number of children born to unmarried mothers and the increasing number of households headed by single mothers would lead to persistent, generational poverty.3 The report was rightly met with severe criticism for the tone and the blame it placed on the African American community.
Yet 50 years later, we must confront the reality that the trend that Moynihan first noticed in the African American community—the decline in the proportion of nuclear families—has since extended across all racial and ethnic groups.4
Of course, there have been many positive trends in the past 50 years that have allowed our society to move beyond the constraints of the so-called traditional family, and for families to diversify, flourish, and form in ways that strengthen the fabric of America. No-fault divorce has allowed women to exit abusive and unhealthy marriages. The opening of the labor market, the evolving economy, and the civil rights movement made marriage more egalitarian, with men and women more likely to share fluid roles as both breadwinners and caregivers. Marriage is now open to same-sex couples in a growing number of states. Single parents are no longer shunned by society. And women are no longer pressed into marriage by necessity, or to gain access to economic resources and benefits.
But in spite of these positive shifts, the trend Moynihan identified has only gotten worse—unplanned births to unmarried mothers who are living in poverty or on the brink continue to rise. And while not accepted as a national crisis then, it should be today. In too many cases, parents who had not intended to get pregnant are unprepared for the responsibilities associated with raising a child alone, and society thus far has been unwilling or unable either to curb the rise in unplanned pregnancies or to accommodate fully this change in family makeup.
What has happened? Why have so many women begun the journey of motherhood without marriage? And where are the men in this equation? The fact is that many women are not “deciding” to have babies before marriage—in fact, women living on the brink of poverty are the most likely to have babies as a result of unplanned and unintended pregnancies. And when they do so outside of marriage, they discover the support they need is missing: Men are largely absent from providing economic support to raise the child, and society offers little support to help these women gain the education they need or to help them balance their work with their family obligations.
Rather than indulging in the moral handwringing and judgment that often accompany investigations into changes in the marriage rate, this chapter argues that our country will be better served by doing the following:
• Concretely tackling the rise in unplanned pregnancies to unmarried mothers. We can do so by encouraging women to plan their pregnancies through the responsible use of more fail-safe contraceptive methods, and to choose to parent at the time that is the most stable and sensible for them. The public, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors can play a critical role in increasing the awareness about and access to the most effective contraceptive methods, including long-acting reversible contraception, or LARC.
• Rather than promoting marriage as a silver bullet for women’s economic troubles, the government should instead promote policies that allow women to complete their educations, to find stable and well-paying jobs, and to have the work sup- ports necessary to meet their family needs, including child care and family- friendly workplace policies.
If we do not take these steps, the United States will soon have a generation of children who were raised without the full support of our society, and who are not fully prepared to have jobs that will allow them to compete in the 21st-century global economy.
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THE REALITY OF MARRIAGE, MOTHERHOOD, AND MEN IN AMERICA
The roles of marriage, motherhood, and men in America have changed dramatically in the past several decades. The short narrative is that a rising number of women (and men) are increasingly having children before they get married. Everyone—across race, education, and class—is marrying later than they did 50 years ago. Women are more likely to be working in the paid labor force while caring for their children, often juggling both on their own without the support of a husband or a stable partner. And more men are living apart from their children than ever before. At the same time, those men who are living with their children are more active and involved in their children’s lives than ever before. However, there are serious class divisions in family structures, with women in poverty or on the brink of it much more likely to give birth before they marry and to be raising children outside of marriage.
THE ‘WHY’ AND ‘SO WHAT’ OF TRENDS IN MARRIAGE, MOTHERHOOD, AND MEN
There is widespread agreement that some combination of shifts in culture have led to the surge of women having babies outside of marriage and raising children on their own.36 These societal changes include an evolution in attitude (regarding sex outside of marriage); advances in technology (the birth control pill contributing further to the acceptance of sex outside of marriage); and the transformation of the economy (with a decrease in the ability of men to be the sole breadwinner in a family and an increase of women in the workforce).
The overwhelming evidence regarding women having children outside of marriage, however, points us back to two trends. First, these births are overwhelmingly the result of unplanned and unintended pregnancies. And second, the United States stands out distinctly in its failure to provide information about and access to failsafe contraception that can stop unintended pregnancies. Women in the United States have much lower rates of contraceptive use in their teens and 20s and are half as likely as their European counterparts to use more effective contraceptive methods, such as IUDs. 37
In addition to the failure of our society to address unplanned and unintended pregnancies through greater access to contraception, there remains widespread disagreement over the extent to which cultural shifts impact our society. Can or should the government intervene to try to reverse this trend? And, if so, at what axis point could the government most impact this problem either to reverse the trend or ameliorate its effects?
Indeed, in the polling conducted for The Shriver Report, a solid majority—64 percent—of the public believes that the government should set a goal of helping society adapt to the reality of single-parent families and use its resources to help children and mothers succeed regardless of their family status. Also, a majority—51 percent—believe that the government should set a goal of reducing the number of children born to single parents and use its resources to encourage marriage and two-parent families.
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WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
We must confront the fact that our public policies to curb unintended and unplanned pregnancies and those aimed at ameliorating the economic precariousness of single-parent households have largely failed to affect demographic trends in the timing of marriage and motherhood. While access to and use of contraception have increased, use and access for young American women are still much lower than in other developed nations. Welfare reform has not alleviated the burdens on low-income women and children, and the Healthy Marriage Initiative did nothing to reverse the trend.
We must also re-enter the marriage debate with a shared understanding that legally recognized relationships are granted social and economic benefits that tend to make them, as a whole, more stable and financially secure. This stability and financial security, which is often correlated with marriage, can have a deep impact on parents’ ability to raise healthy children with bright futures, as well as promoting women’s economic security and prosperity.
In addition to economic incentives to promote marriage among low-income communities, the government should focus its efforts on reducing unplanned births to unmarried women and increasing the educational and economic prospects of single moms. Specifically:
• Stable relationships matter. Those on the left and right should acknowledge their shared agreement that a stable relationship is the preferable family form for raising children, and that married relationships tend to be more stable than other relationships as a whole. Our public policies should encourage marriage or stable cohabiting relationships.
• Curbing unintended and unplanned pregnancies must be a public priority. In addition to economic incentives to increase marriage rates, the government should tackle the problem at its root by aiming to reduce unintended and unplanned pregnancies among unmarried mothers in the same way that Congress and the nonprofit sector have tried to tackle teen pregnancy through increased public education and awareness and better information about and access to contraception. The teen pregnancy rate has been reduced by 42 percent since the 1990s, and the National Campaign to Reduce Teen Pregnancy has recently turned its efforts to addressing unplanned pregnancy among unmarried young adults. This effort should be supported and expanded.
• Increasing access to highly effective contraception is critical to the effort to curb unintended pregnancies. Efforts to reduce unintended and unplanned pregnancies should be tied to increasing awareness about and access to new technologies for long-acting reversible contraception, or LARC, which have much higher rates of effectiveness (99 percent) than other methods. Through the expansion of access to health care offered by the Affordable Care Act, many women will have greater access to contraception. This access, however, will need to be tied to increased education and awareness about the effectiveness of LARC, particularly for young women most at risk of unintended pregnancies.
• Single parents need education and good jobs to help their children thrive. Both sides should acknowledge that marriage, as an institution for raising children, is not always possible. Accepting that even a reversal in the trend of unmarried births will not end the need to support single-parent families, the government should provide greater educational opportunities and work supports to help single parents gain access to better jobs with more stable incomes and supports such as child care, paid family leave, and equal pay, as outlined in great detail in the Public Solutions chapter. Single mothers in our survey were more likely to regret leaving school (70 percent) than regret the timing or number of their children(47 percent).
By working to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies to unmarried parents, policymakers must also acknowledge the lack of economic and educational opportunities afforded to low-income young adults. While we should encourage young women to get an education before having a baby and encourage both parents to be economically secure before entering into parenthood, this suggestion must come with real policies to support these efforts, as outlined in the Education chapter.
This is an excerpt from The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, in partnership with the Center for American Progress. Download the full report here for FREE from January 12th – January 15th.