Marriage trends don't bode well for children

The Sun Journal recently reported on the increasing number of unwed mothers in Maine. Forty percent of the children born here are now born to single mothers.

For women under 30, the youngest group, 51 percent of babies are now born to unmarried mothers, which signals the trend will continue.

But on this Father's Day, it is worth stating that more fairly: More and more babies are born to unwed fathers. Over the past decade, births to unwed fathers in Maine were up by 10 percent.

We talk almost exclusively about unmarried mothers only because they usually end up caring for the children of men who are missing or are only intermittently available to help with child-rearing.

But to better understand the massive social shift that has occurred here and across the U.S., we need to look at a longer timeline.

In 1930 about 4 percent of births in Maine were to unmarried couples.

That was likely the result of several factors, including social pressure, religious conviction and the economic reality that few women had the means to raise a child alone.

That 4 percent rate continued right through the 1960s. But the statistics show a sharp shift occurred in the mid-1960s — an increase in births to unmarried couples in Maine.

The steady 4 percent increased over the decades to 40 percent today, a 10-fold increase.

To those with a conservative outlook, the reasons might seem clear.

First, President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty programs began in 1964, marking the beginning of the massive social-welfare support programs that many conservatives feel now subsidize unwed parenthood.

Second, the so-called sexual revolution gradually freed people of former taboos and normalized, even glamorized, the raising of children by unmarried women.

To liberals, the picture might look different: Globalization and the decline of unions have eroded the traditional nuclear family, middle-class lifestyle and marriage.

Meanwhile, many feel the family structure is simply changing, and perhaps for the better. More highly educated women with more earning capacity are now fully capable of successfully raising children without a man.

There are two problems with that analysis: The trend in single-parent households has increased in good and bad economic times, through booms and busts, even in the 1970s when manufacturing and unions were much stronger.

What's more, Census figures show that highly educated, highly compensated women are far more likely to be married when they give birth and to stay married, doing so at rates similar to the rates of the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the women least capable of financially supporting children — younger, less-educated, low-earning women — have become far more likely to be raising children without partners.

Before we go further, it is necessary to understand two things.

First, we are talking about broad averages. There are many single mothers who raise successful, well-adjusted and high-achieving children.

Indeed, two of our recent presidents — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — were raised by strong, committed single mothers. It can be done.

Second, unmarried fathers can be wonderful dads. Some men become lifelong partners of their child's mother while others remain fully involved in a child's life even after a divorce or other separation. They are to be admired and commended, and the outcomes for their children show the difference.

It is, however, when we look at the odds and averages that problems become apparent. On average, the deck is simply stacked against the poorest people doing the difficult job of parenting without life partners.

There is, of course, simple poverty. Giving children life and learning opportunities takes money. Everything, including youth sports, travel, summer camps and tutors, requires discretionary income women living in poverty are less likely to have.

In Maine, single-parent households with children, which are overwhelmingly headed by women, are six times more likely to live in poverty than two-parent married couples.

There is not a shred of doubt that marriage and education are the keys to reducing poverty, yet when was the last time you heard a politician talk about the first half of that equation?

Why are so many families poor? Partly because so many of them are attempting to raise children on one income or no income at all.

A single-parent household headed by a high-school dropout in Maine has a 51 percent chance of living in poverty. A household headed by a married couple with the same education level has about an 11 percent poverty rate.

The same is true for all education levels.

A single-parent with a college degree has a 10 percent chance of living in poverty. Throw two college graduates together and the poverty rate becomes nearly negligible: 1.1 percent.

But the real question is what this trend means for children, and the answers are disturbing.

Experts agree that security and stability are necessary to raising happy, well-adjusted children.

Yet, children in single-parent households are much more likely to move during the course of a school year, plus they are often raised with a rotation of fathers, stepfathers and boyfriends.

Again, some of these may be wonderful people, but research shows that a child living with a stepparent is eight times more likely to be physically or sexually abused.

Some experts believe children living in such an unsteady environment are more likely to themselves have trouble forming stable relationships as adults.

Children growing up outside a married partnership are also at greater risk of nearly everything that can go wrong in a childhood. The list includes being:

* More likely to suffer from depression and emotional problems;

* More likely to suffer a physical illness or accident;

* More likely to engage in high-risk behavior such as drinking, smoking and using drugs;

* More likely to commit a criminal offense;

* More likely to be truant and drop out of school;

* More likely to leave home at a young age;

* And more likely to have children of their own outside marriage and at an earlier age.

In the 1980s, it seems, there was much more written about these consequences. It is easy to find research on the subject and on organizations being formed to combat the trend.

While there is research being done today and the occasional book written about the disintegration of the middle-class family, there seems to be much greater acceptance that the structure of the American family is simply changing, that the change is inevitable and benign.

A Bowdoin College scholar recently told the Sun Journal that we face two choices:

* "Either Maine ratchets up public support — health care, financial help — and sees whether more security in day-to-day lives means less stress on relationships. Maybe more people will stay together. Maybe more will marry.

* "Or, Maine yanks the help. Maybe more people do for themselves. Maybe more couples stay together the old-fashioned way."

More financial support for poor people in the current political and economic climate is clearly off the table. Plus, as such support has increased over the years, the rate of unwed fathers and mothers, and children living in poverty, have increased apace.

The second idea — suddenly yanking the help and hoping for the best — could be a disastrous gamble.

It is certainly worth closely examining whether our welfare and tax policies encourage unwed fathers and mothers and discourage marriage.

It was only in 2010 that Congress finally addressed the "marriage penalty," a proven tax penalty for joint income-tax filers.

Moreover, are there any clear-cut tax advantages for people who make a joint, long-term commitment to raising children together? Should there be?

Beyond that, only the tools of education, information and moral suasion remain.

While we seem determined to remove the social stigma from unwed parenthood, we should at least be willing to openly discuss the risks and problems often associated with single-parent households versus a committed partnership.

And, clearly, this involves both a moral and practical judgment that our society now seems reluctant to make. Bluntly, on average, not all family arrangements are equally suitable for raising children.

Most children are born to a man and a woman. That is not a simple incident. It carries an obligation: that those children will be raised by the people who brought them into the world, by a father and a mother.

Increasingly, that is not happening. That hurts us all, and children the most.

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PAUL ST JEAN's picture

"Why are so many families

"Why are so many families poor? Partly because so many of them are attempting to raise children on one income or no income at all."
It is doubtful that there is any such thing as 'no income at all'. Liberal social welfare programs has seen to that. It's been stated that a family of four with no income resources other than all of the government programs available to them have the equivalent of disposible income close to $40,000. How many working middle class families can make that statement?

Unwed pregnancy use to be a stigmatic situation; through liberalism and political correctness it has become a badge of honor. What used to be shacking up is now, "I'd like you to meet my 'fiance'."

RONALD RIML's picture

And idea what the single birth rate was here

in the 17th and 18th Centuries when we were part of Massachusetts???

Betty Davies's picture

Cause vs effect

Poverty keeps increasing. Men who can't find decent jobs--or any job--are not likely to propose marriage. They know they can't be breadwinners for a family.

Women living in poverty have yet to resign themselves to never having a baby, never raising a child, though that seems to be what many people are hoping will emerge--a permanent underclass of childless women.

As poverty has increased, and women have continued to bear children, programs try to help these families survive. Conservatives say that the existence of social programs causes unmarried women to bear children. But most women have a powerful drive to become mothers. Even if conservatives win the day, social programs are slashed, and all children of single mothers grow up hungry and destitute, women will continue to bear children (even more than now, if conservatives also manage to forbid contraception).

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Do you suppose it's something

Do you suppose it's something in the water that's causing this uncontrollable urge in single women to want to pro-create?
By the way, conservatives are not against contraception; they just have no interest in subsidizing the sexual appetites of people they don't even know.

Betty Davies's picture

You have no clue...

Little girls love to play with dolls. As they get older, most start to yearn for babies. This is built in to human biology. Ridiculing it as "something in the water" is simply a slur.

On the one hand, you don't want single women to have babies. On the other hand, you're against the provision of contraception because it would (giggle?) "subsidize sexual appetites."

A strong desire for sex is also built into human biology. It will exist whether or not contraception is provided.

Seems to me you want to keep impoverished women in a lose-lose situation. Either they agree to be part of a permanent underclass of abstinent and childless spinsters, or they express the natural human desire for sex and babies--and you get to despise them for having "sexual appetites", make sure they have as little access as possible to contraception, and deny any help from perfect old you.

Let's reframe this discussion. How about getting more JOBS into Maine and the rest of the US, so people will be able to afford marriage and children?

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Having raised 5 daughters of

Having raised 5 daughters of my own, I know exactly what goes on with them from the doll stages through the dating stages. Obviously, you're the one who is either clueless or looking for a squabble if you think the water line was a slur.
A better way of reframing the discussion would be for some of us to show a little more tolerance and respect to the opinions of others. After all, it is a place to express opinions, isn't it?

 's picture

It is about personal accountability

It's not about conservatives, it's about personal accountability.

If you cannot commit to a life time relationship, perhaps you should stay single. If you cannot commit to providing for children that you bring into the world, perhaps you should think about that before condemning them to a life of poverty.

Rex's message in the last couple of paragraphs is strong and true.

Don't expect others to fund your children's life. That is your responsibility.

One of the questions that needs to be answered is "Where's pop?"

I have been married to a wonderful woman for 38 years. It hasn't been easy for either of us, but we were determined to make it work. I doubt that any long-term married couples would disagree with me. Too many people bail out at the first hint of difficulty. An increasing number of people were brought up in single-parent homes so this may be the new normal. I feel sorry for the kids.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Well, stated, Bob. A

Well, stated, Bob. A successful long term marriage is a work in progress which requires daily attention. Unfortunately, too few are willing or able to make such a commitment.

Jason Theriault's picture

Let's be clear here

Let's be clear here - when you say "perhaps you should think about that before condemning them to a life of poverty" what your really saying is "Don't have sex if your poor". Because a lot of single mother pregnancies are not expected, and I would guess you're against abortion.

What they need to do is spend less money and effort on the parent and child and more on going after deadbeat parent.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

"Don't have sex if your

"Don't have sex if your poor"? I doubt that's what he said, but if you're poor, chances are pretty good that your contraceptives are free. There's really no excuse for unwanted pregnancies, rape notwithstanding. Ignorance and not giving a damn seem to lead the parade of causes. Too many girls are pefectly willing to allow themselves to get 'knocked up' knowing full well the social benefits that will be made available to them. We need to bring the social stigmas of unwed pregnancy back.

 's picture


Many responsible couples who are not at the time financially able to have a child and support it on their own choose to wait. The poor as you say can just go ahead and have a planned on unplanned and its up to these other people to support them as its their "right" to bear. Alot of these single girls are having babies with boys/men that they never intended with a child or not to marry with no concern about the life this child is being brought into. Of course most once they get the child would say they are glad they got it thats a normal instinct but it was just for sex without the responsibility that could come of it. There are young unmarried couples living together that are deciding to have babies as being a single parent you qualify for MaineCare. Wick and all the programs they have for unwed Mother's. This is crazy. By the time you have had your second, third or fourth you should have a general idea of how that happened and time to think about the children and not just what makes you happy. If you are having unprotected sex I don't know why it shouldn't be expected among other things that occur from unprotection. No one is condemning them to a life of poverty but themselves who are first thinking about themselves and not a child that might come of it. You just go to DHHS and sign up. With so many people that want to work out of jobs the well is gonna run dry and then what? There is no responsibility here. The system will not help you if you try to help yourself in the process. No one is going to work for less then the state will give them so there is no encentive and if you go to work the state won't help you. There is no sense for the state to say you got to go to school if that is the only requirement that you do it and of course a nursery for the children has to be provided. Anyway who can't see that this is a growing problem and not just in this area hasn't read the statistics.

Betty Davies's picture

Partial agreement

Congratulations on a long marriage--for my husband and me, it's 39 years plus our 3-year engagement.

The politics of austerity and the demolition of the social safety net will have some major effects on America's permanent underclass--those who have limited skills and/or disabilities and have never worked, or have skills but got laid off , or have skills but will never find a job above minimum wage. Our social structure has condemned most of these adults to a live of poverty (though, somehow, there's always money for wars and tax breaks for millionaires).

One could argue that they should be trained early that they must never bear children. The desire for children is intense, and has been trumping common sense for millennia of human existance. So perhaps the most severe training would occur when they start having babies and the reality of NO help for them or the kids really sinks in.

Starvation would probably trim their numbers considerably. America could designate them as Untouchables, as in the old Indian castes. Only we'd call them Unhelpables, aka The Undeserving Poor.

Steve  Dosh's picture

Marriage trends don't bode well for children

Whelp , 19:00 Saturday hst
" Earth's the best place for love. I can't imagine where it's likely to go much better . " - - Bob Frost . Nice editorial
Here's a lesson from the Third and and Fourth worlds . If we can keep girls in school through 7 th grade she will probably have 4 kids. 8th ? 3 kids. High school ? 2.2 . Girls education works . The Second World ( former communist countries ) export children ( orphans ) and have negative growth rates . They don't father enough children to repopulate their countries . We don't know why
i was happily married for 25 years and then cancer took my wife's life 5 years ago . My wifey never drove . She was from Micronesia . There were no cars on her island . I'd go to the market shopping here and people would say , " Are those your kids ? They don't look anything like you . " The only response i could muster was, " Thank you very much ." :D
My four kids keep me company both here in Hawai'i and on line . Marriage doesn't mean what it use to and , at my age , it probably means even less . Kids make it all worthwhile , this living thing . They are our future
Love is the glue that holds everything together . Some call it God . Call it what you may , it's what makes the world go 'round ( money helps ) Accept others as they are, whether you accept their value systems or not . It's simply called respect and a very adult thing to do
" i believe that children are our future , teach them well and let them lead the way . Show them all the beauty they possess inside . Give them a sense of pride , to make it easier . let the children's laughter remind us what we used to be. " -- Whitney ( R I P )
/s Steve , Happy Fathers' Day , all dads


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