Thursday, March 27, 2008
Slate's "Dear Prudence" has an insightful and concise column on the "national catastrophe" of out-of-wedlock births. Here's an excerpt:
That out-of-wedlock births are a problem for society does get some political attention—the kind of attention that shows there's not a good plan for what to do about them. Mitt Romney mentioned the statistics in his presidential withdrawal speech. He cites declining religious observance, easily available pornography, and the possibility of gay marriage as the causes—a platform that seems unlikely to reverse the birth trends. Barack Obama, who grew up without a father, believes that a central reason for the ever-increasing rates is the difficult economic circumstances of the working class. In one speech on fatherhood, he talked about the need for government programs to help men become more of a presence in their children's lives and admonished fathers to take their duties seriously. But he didn't mention that one key to effective fatherhood is first becoming a husband.
Economists believe humans act rationally (a somewhat irrational belief, if you ask me), so some conclude that all this out-of-wedlock childbearing is a logical response to market forces, not the result of something as amorphous as "culture." Since many working-class men do not offer the financial stability they used to provide, women see little incentive to marry them. As Obama said, "[M]any black men simply cannot afford to raise a family." (The out-of-wedlock birthrate among black Americans is close to 70 percent.) I'm trying to follow the logic here. I can understand that a woman looking to get married may decide that a man is such a poor economic prospect that he's not husband material (even if a husband with a low income is better than no husband and no income). But how then is that same man, or a string of them, worthy of fathering her children?
Scholar Kay Hymowitz, author of Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age, turns the argument around and says it's not that harsh economic conditions lead to women having children without fathers, but that the decision to have children without fathers leads to harsh, and self-perpetuating, economic conditions.