IS IT CRUEL TO DESCRIBE THE LIFE CHANCES SINGLE MOTHERS are giving their children? How about compared with actually doing that to children at a rate of about 1.5 million a year?
If a child in the womb could choose one fact about his parents— rich, good-looking, intelligent, easygoing, athletic, went to Harvard, black, or white—the one factor that would improve his life chances more than any other is that they be married. (Or at least the second choice, right after “Mother is not ‘pro-choice.’ ”) The only thing a baby shouldn't want is parents who divorce or—worst of all—were never married. That's starting life with a losing hand.
Liberal think tanks denounce efforts to promote marriage, deceptively chirping, as Mary Parke of the Center for Law and Social Policy did, that most children in single-parent homes “grow up without serious problems.”18
Yes, and most smokers won't die of lung disease.
The evidence of the damage of single parenthood is so blindingly obvious even liberals have started to admit it. A 2004 New York Times Magazine article on welfare families by Jason DeParle said, “Mounds of social science, from the left and the right, leave little doubt that the children of single-parent families face heightened risks.” Calling a single-parent family “a double dose of disadvantage,”19 the Times article cited as “the definitive text” a book by sociologists Sara McLana-han and Gary Sandefur that concluded, back in 1994, “In our opinion, the evidence is quite clear: Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents’ race or educational background.”20
That's an understatement. The eminent social scientist Charles Murray says, “Illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time—more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else.”21
Here is the lottery ticket that single mothers are handing their innocent children by choosing to raise them without fathers: Controlling for socioeconomic status, race, and place of residence, the strongest predictor of whether a person will end up in prison is that he was raised by a single parent.22 By 1996, 70 percent of inmates in state juvenile detention centers serving long-term sentences were raised by single mothers.23 Seventy-two percent of juvenile murderers and 60 percent of rapists come from single-mother homes.24 Seventy percent of teenage births,25 dropouts, suicides,26 runaways, juvenile delinquents, and child murderers involve children raised by single mothers.27 Girls raised without fathers are more sexually promiscuous and more likely to end up divorced.28 A 1990 study by the Progressive Policy Institute showed that after controlling for single motherhood, the difference between black and white crime rates disappeared.29
Various studies come up with slightly different numbers, but all the figures are grim. According to the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, children from single-parent families account for 63 percent of all youth suicides, 70 percent of all teenage pregnancies, 71 percent of all adolescent chemical/substance abuse, 80 percent of all prison inmates, and 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children.30
A study cited in the Village Voice produced similar numbers. It found that children brought up in single-mother homes “are five times more likely to commit suicide, nine times more likely to drop out of high school, 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, 14 times more likely to commit rape (for the boys), 20 times more likely to end up in prison, and 32 times more likely to run away from home.”31 Single motherhood is like a farm team for future criminals and social outcasts.
With new children being born, running away, dropping out of high school, and committing murder every year, it's not a static problem to analyze. But however the numbers are run, single motherhood is a societal nuclear bomb.
Many of these studies, for example, are from the 1990s, when the percentage of teenagers raised by single parents was lower than it is today. In 1990, 28 percent of children under eighteen were being raised in one-parent homes (mother or father), and 71 percent were being raised in two-parent homes.32 By 2005, more than one-third of all babies born in the United States were illegitimate. That's a lot of social problems coming.
Imagine an America with 70 percent fewer juvenile delinquents, 70 percent fewer teenage births, 63 to 70 percent fewer teenage suicides, and 70 percent to 90 percent fewer runaways and you will appreciate what the sainted single mothers have accomplished. Even in liberals’ fevered nightmares, predatory mortgage dealers, oil speculators, and Ken Lay could never do as much harm to their fellow human beings as single mothers do.
The problem is not confined to the United States. With a welfare state similar to America's,33 Britain leads Europe in the proportion of single mothers—and also is ranked by UNICEF at the bottom of all industrialized nations in the well-being of its children. Britain tops the European Union in crime—including violent crime—alcohol and drug abuse, obesity, and sexually transmitted diseases, though some are ties.34 Citing these statistics in a 2007 article in Maclean's magazine, British journalist Martin Newland said, “Increasingly, but belatedly, politicians are beginning to identify the decline of marriage and the family as the major cause of … social dysfunctions including ill health, crime, rampant promiscuity and welfare dependency.”
Family breakdown is not spread evenly throughout the population. America has more than twice as many teenage births as other developed nations,35 80 percent of which are out of wedlock.36 Only 4 percent of college graduates have illegitimate children. Sixteen percent of college graduates will get divorced, compared with 46 percent of high school dropouts, despite the fact that high school dropouts are less likely to get married in the first place.37
This rash of single motherhood is breeding a huge underclass. Half of the single mothers in the United States are below the poverty line, making their children six times more likely to be in poverty than children with married parents.38 Single mothers account for 85 percent of homeless families.39 Ninety percent of welfare recipients are single mothers.40 According to Isabel V. Sawhill of the liberal Brookings Institution, almost all of the increase in child poverty since the 1970s is attributable to the increase in single-parent families.41 The 2004 New York Times Magazine article describing the world of welfare families hinted at the problem, saying that if you dig down deep in the world of the underclass “you hit a geyser of father-yearning.”42
The English doctor who writes under the pen name “Theodore Dalrymple” says the conceptual framework of the underclass is to see themselves as the passive victims of circumstances, with no control over their own lives. This is a worldview unique to two groups—derelicts and liberals. Dalrymple reports that three murderers in the prison he serves used the exact same words to describe their crimes: “The knife went in.” As Dalrymple says, “That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.” Murderers view their arrests for murder a matter of bad “luck.” All their life choices are things that happen to them, these “marionettes of happenstance.”43
It's the same thing with battered women who act as if they could not possibly have foreseen the violent tendencies in their boyfriends. This, Dalrymple says, “serves to absolve them of all responsibility for whatever happens thereafter, allowing them to think of themselves as victims alone rather than the victims and accomplices they are.” And yet Dalrymple demonstrates that they knew exactly what they were getting into with the men who beat them. He ascertains this by asking battered women two questions: (1) Do you think I could have guessed by looking at your boyfriend that he would beat you? (Answer: Yes); and (2) What do you think I noticed about your boyfriend that would cause me to know he would beat you? (Answer: the tattoos, the scars, the shaved head, etc.). Thus, Dalrymple concludes that they knew it, too, but acted as if their boyfriends’ beati
How much stranger is it to act as if unwed pregnant women have nothing to do with their circumstances? Getting pregnant isn't like getting cancer. Single mothers don't occur randomly in the population. As any kindergartner in today's public schools can tell you, pregnancy is the result of having sex without using a condom.
And yet a 1992 New York Times article about single mothers on welfare used the exact same passive voice of the criminal described by Dalrymple. According to the Times, the women became pregnant out of wedlock when “their youth was overtaken by motherhood.”45 External factors caused their dilemmas, not their own free will: “Being black and from the inner city also raised the likelihood of dependency.” Adopting the language of irresponsibility that has done so much for the poor, the fifteen-year-old son of an unwed mother told the Times, “My mother ain't got the money…. That's the kind of stuff that makes you sell drugs. You want something, and you ain't got nothing in your pocket.”46 A Times editorial explained that the “true enemy” is “poverty.”47
For half a century, American welfare policy was premised on the insane idea that being poor causes single motherhood and crime, rather than that single motherhood causes criminal behavior and poverty. The result of treating a symptom rather than the cause was that all three—poverty, single motherhood, and crime—skyrocketed.
A single mother in West Virginia explained her unwed pregnancy to The Economist, saying, “It just happened.”48 Our entire political class and popular culture seem to agree: Single motherhood just happens. We must all pretend that single women are passive victims of their own incredibly stupid choices and then extol them for their pluck.
A book praising single mothers denounces those in middle-class America who “implicitly assume that girls and young women would have more control over their lives if they deferred motherhood.” Apparently, deferring motherhood until marriage is impossible for the poor because the knife went in— Wait, no, because they “rarely see such choices” as marriage “as open to them at all.”49 Perhaps they would see such choices more clearly if the entire liberal establishment were not constantly praising single mothers and sneering at the unhip, drab middle class with their bourgeois prejudices against having children out of wedlock.
Having money doesn't make you middle-class. The secret to being middle-class in America is: Keep your knees together before marriage and graduate from high school. That's it! Anyone who does those two things has a smaller chance of being in poverty than a boy from the Dal-ton School has of being in the Navy SEALs. We could wipe out chronic poverty in America tomorrow if women could just manage to get married before having children—and to stay married after having children.
But reinforcing the idea that single motherhood is just a matter of rotten luck on the order of a brick falling on your head—or, apparently, knifing someone in a pub—liberals respond to the crisis of single motherhood by demanding yet more instruction in birth control. It's society's fault that teenagers are getting pregnant.
We've already run that experiment. It was precisely the advent of the pill that precipitated the gusher of illegitimate births in the first place. As with Dalrymple's battered women, if it was just bad luck, why were conservatives able to predict that the wide availability of birth control would lead to more illegitimate children? Teaching proper condom use in government schools sends what we call a “mixed message”: Never, under any circumstances, have sex before you're married. Now, here are the precautions you'll want to take before having premar- ital sex…. It doesn't matter if twice as many unwed girls are using birth control if 10,000 times more unwed girls are having sex.
Our public schools are drowning in condoms. More seventh-graders know how to put on a condom than can name the first president— although kids who are really good with a condom all seem to know the name of the 42nd. If public schools were required to offer any more birth control classes, they might not have time for their “plan a jihad” lessons. The idea that mastering the use of birth control is information adolescents are lacking is nonsense. They're running transcontinental drug rings and complicated welfare frauds. But they need instruction in how to put on a condom?
Apparently it wasn't society's failure to provide birth control classes that led to a spike in unwed mothers at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts in 2008. Time magazine revealed that nearly a dozen adolescent girls had entered a pregnancy pact, agreeing to get pregnant on purpose. After seventeen high school girls—none older than sixteen—got pregnant that year, four times more than the average, the school nurses remarked that they had noticed a surge in sophomores coming in for pregnancy testing. The girls walked out sullen if the test came back negative, but ecstatic if it was positive. For some, it was the first test they had ever passed.
Under questioning, the girls “confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.” One girl had gotten herself pregnant with a homeless man who reportedly wooed her with free rides in his shopping cart. “They're so excited,” one unwed teenaged mother said, “to finally have someone to love them unconditionally.”50 Another classmate explained, “No one's offered them a better option.” Admittedly, a “better option” than being impregnated by a guy who sleeps under an overpass and collects cans for a living is hard to imagine. But the point is: It's our fault. These girls are just victims of a society that hasn't “offered” them something better—other than living in the most prosperous, free nation on earth.
I know from reading the New York Times that it's madness to ask people to wait until marriage to have sex. Why should people worry about the kind of life they are giving a child when they have a shot at fleeting sexual pleasure? Even Sidonie Squier, head of President Bush's marriage-promotion project in the Office of Family Assistance, stoutly assured The Economist that her office did not “take a view on whether people should have pre-marital sex.”51 So I guess, as with global warming, the debate is over.
But Americans used to be able to care about the circumstances of their children's births: The illegitimacy rate has gone up by more than 300 percent since 1970.52 Moreover, even assuming that, sometime around the year 1969, the entire human race lost the ability to defer gratification, there's still the wholly volitional decision not to give the baby up for adoption.
In 1979, only about 600,000 babies were born out of wedlock and one-quarter of them were put up for adoption. By 1991, the number of illegitimate births had doubled to 1,225,000 annually, but only 4 percent were allowed to be adopted53—and most of those babies were snapped up by either Angelina Jolie or Mia Farrow. By 2003, 1.5 million illegitimate babies were born every year, but only about 14,000 of them, less than 1 percent, were put up for adoption.54 Not surprisingly, unwed mothers who care enough to give their children up for adoption also come overwhelmingly from responsible backgrounds. They tend to have higher education and income levels and to come from intact upper-middle-class families with highly educated parents.55
You will note that we do not read about adopted children filling up the prisons, welfare rolls, and runaway shelters. Adopted children are no worse off—and, indeed, are generally better off—than nonadopted children. There aren't a lot of studies about adopted children, because they aren't constantly mugging us and creating social disorders, but one four-year study by the Search Institute in Minnesota looked at the mental and psychological well-being of 881 teenagers who had been adopted as infants. The study found that adopted teenagers had greater empathy, higher self-esteem, and more close friends than nonadopted teenagers in public schools.56 They were less likely to engage in high-risk behavior, such as stealing or excessive drinking, than nonadopted teenagers.57 In all, they scored higher than the control group of nonadopted children on sixteen indicators of well-being.58 They were less than half as likely to have divorced parents than nonadopted teenagers (11 percent to 28 percent) and were as strongly attached to their parent
Adopted children of a different race from their family did just as well.60 The only important factor in adoption is that the child be adopted within the first fifteen months of his life. “We cannot overstate,” the study's authors said, “the power of early placement.”
The blessed “single mothers” we are required to idolize had a choice of placing their children in the best of all possible worlds for their children (adoption) or the worst of all possible worlds (single-mother families). To satisfy their own selfish interests, they chose the worst of all possible worlds. Couldn't newspapers start telling us how global warming, government programs, and hurricanes are going to affect a more desirable group, like drug dealers?
Obviously, adoptive parents are the people who deserve all the praise, admiration, and Oprah appearances, not “single mothers.” But they're merely saving children's lives. They're not sad-sack victims selfishly destroying their children's lives and depending on society to support them.
Contrary to popular mythology, there is no shortage of parents ready to adopt. There are waiting lists of parents who want to adopt babies with Down syndrome, spina bifida, and AIDS. In 2004, the head of Adoption Rhode Island, Jeff Katz, said, “I have seen children who were victims of torture adopted. I know an adoptive mother who grew up in foster care who was able to recognize the cigarette burns on her adopted son's body because she, too, had those scars. I have seen countless children whom ‘nobody wanted’ become treasured members of their new families. I have seen all of these children thrive and I have seen their families thrive.” Katz implored, “Don't ever, ever let anyone tell you that these children wait because no one wants to adopt them.”61 Unable to adopt babies in this country, Americans adopt from abroad—more than 20,000 babies in 2003.62