In a recent New York Times column, veteran political reporter Thomas B. Edsall argued that a successful Democratic Party would have to pay attention to moderate voters’ concerns about the rising percentage of births occurring among unmarried women-recently reported to be at an all-time high of 37 percent. Presumably, what Edsall had in mind was the widespread sense of crisis triggered in the mid-1990s when the percentage of such births reached 33 percent. At that time, politicians as different as Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle saw this as a national problem.
But so far there is little evidence to suggest a similar alarm over the further increase in unmarried motherhood. When the National Center for Health Statistics issued the 37-percent figure late last year, it was duly reported in the press. Otherwise, the news passed virtually without comment. Neither the punditocracy nor the political class had anything to say about this new high-water mark.
One reason is surely that the problems of the mid-1990s seem small compared to the problems that the nation faces in 2007. For now at least, the public is understandably more focused on the rising death toll in Iraq than on the rising number of births to single women at home. However, there is another reason why people are now less concerned about the still-rising number of births to singles: in the years since the mid-1990s, we’ve perfected the status of unwed motherhood.
More than a decade ago, public concern focused chiefly on two groups of unwed mothers. One group was teenage girls. Most Americans believed that the typical sixteen-year-old was too young and too unprepared for the responsibilities of lone motherhood. Such girls were “babies having babies.” What they were doing wasn’t good for them or their children. A second group was mothers on welfare. In the eyes of those on the right, these unmarried women were deadbeats who were ripping off the American taxpayer. At the same time, liberals were finding it harder to defend mothers on welfare because such mothers were failing to do what the Left itself increasingly expected all mothers of young children to do-namely, enter the paid work force. Focus groups at the time demonstrated that the voters who were most resentful of welfare mothers were themselves single mothers who were eking out a living and had never been on welfare or had turned to it only briefly to get through a difficult spell.
During the Clinton years, efforts were launched to deal with each of these groups, and they’ve proven highly successful. A mix of public and private initiatives aimed at reducing teen pregnancy has contributed to a sustained decline in births to single teens. The unmarried teen birth rate has fallen to its lowest level since the late 1980s. Similarly, welfare reform reduced long-term welfare dependency by moving mothers into paid work.
Consequently, even as the percentage of births to single women has continued to climb, public anxiety about it has declined. Though the percentage is at an all-time high, the women who are now contributing to these increases are less likely to belong to the two earlier “problem” groups. For one thing, they are older. As the birth rate for unwed teens has fallen, the rate for unmarried women in their twenties and early thirties has risen. For another, many of these post-teenage mothers are likely to be working, or to be moving off welfare and into jobs. Thus, today’s unwed mothers have satisfied the two social requirements of “readiness” for motherhood: they’re past the teen years and they are economically self-supporting. Like the other “working single moms,” they are free to make their own decisions about their intimate and reproductive lives without public censure or criticism-least of all by politicians who seek their vote.
At the same time, this apparent social acceptance of unwed motherhood does far less than one would hope to improve the economic lives of these mothers and children. The typical unwed mother in the class of 2005 isn’t destitute, but she isn’t Angelina Jolie either. Two of the most effective sources of self-sufficiency-professional jobs and marriage-are often beyond her reach. At best, she has no more than a year or two of post-secondary education. She earns somewhere around $12 per hour, putting her in the bottom third of the income distribution. What’s more, she is likely to remain unmarried-by choice or by necessity. A woman who has a child outside of marriage is far less likely to marry than a similarly situated woman who has not had a child. And, in contrast to the pattern in Western Europe where many unwed mothers are in long-lasting cohabiting unions, the percentage of American mothers in such unions is smaller and the duration of those unions is shorter.
On its face, public tolerance for unwed childbearing may seem compassionate and nonjudgmental. But on closer inspection, it constitutes a new and harsh libertarian bargain. In deference to the social libertarians, the public promises not to stick its nose in mothers’ private lives. In deference to economic libertarians, mothers promise not to stick their hand in the public wallet. According to this bargain, as long as lone mothers can support themselves and their children, they are free from social disapproval. But in a society where economic polarization is deepening and where more children of unwed mothers are entering life at the bottom of the ladder, these mothers are not free from economic hardship. The problem is that fewer Americans may now notice or care.