It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.
Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America. The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzed government data.
Among mothers of all ages, a majority — 59 percent in 2009 — are married when they have children. But the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.
One group still largely resists the trend: college graduates, who overwhelmingly marry before having children. That is turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education.
“Marriage has become a luxury good,” said Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
When I was growing up in my hometown, one unspoken but clear divide between blacks and whites here was over the social acceptance of illegitimacy. Half the kids in our school were black, and many of them — I would say most, but I can’t be sure — had no fathers in the home. This was completely normal in their culture; there was no stigma at all. I remember being in eighth or ninth grade and going to a school program one night, and being shocked to see how many of the black girls I saw every day in the hallway at school were there with their babies. We all understood that sometimes white girls got pregnant, but the strong sense among the white community in that place and time was that illegitimacy was a black thing, that it was taboo for white people. The sense was that this behavior had wrecked their families and community, and we couldn’t let it happen to ours. The thing is, I don’t recall that there was much concern that it could happen to white people; the mainstreaming of illegitimacy was, at that time (1970s, 1980s), so completely identified in my community as a black thing that it was hard even to imagine it becoming a problem among whites.
Why is this? My memory may be fuzzy, but I can’t recall any white person applying an economic analysis to this abandonment of traditional familial standards; it was rather seen as a sign of religious and moral collapse. Of course that religious and moral collapse has profound economic consequences for individuals and communities caught up within it. This is one reason why the taboo arose to begin with. I mean, if you are a Christian, you would say that God laid down right and wrong in these matters. If you are not, you would say, or could say, that the religious prohibitions against sex and childbearing outside of wedlock arose for evolutionary reasons — namely, to keep the tribe strong.
In his book “Coming Apart,” Charles Murray produces a chart showing the white nonmarital birth rates from 1917-2008. They were consistently low — below five percent — until 1960, when they began to climb steeply. The real upward acceleration began around 1975. In 2010, the rate was nearly 30 percent. All this, within a single generation. Murray writes: “For the first time in human history, we now have societies in which a group consisting of a lone woman and her offspring is not considered to be sociologically incomplete — not considered to be illegitimate … .” This might be an overstatement, but it is certainly the case that the normalization of illegitimacy is practically unprecedented.
Further in the book, Murray quotes John Adams on the importance of marriage as a social institution. “The foundation of national morality must be laid in private families,” Adams wrote in his diary. “How is it possible that children can have any just sense of the sacred obligations of morality or religion if, from their earliest Infancy, they learn their mothers live in habitual Infidelity to their fathers, and their fathers in as constant Infidelity to their mothers?” Murray goes on to say that however unorthodox the Founders were in their religious beliefs, they all believed strongly that the nation could not be free without virtue, and that virtue is impossible to maintain without religion. Remember Adams’s lines: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Which came first, the decline of religion, or the rise of illegitimacy? It’s hard to say, but I find it impossible to believe that they are unconnected. I am reminded of this passage I once wrote about Philip Rieff’s cultural ideas:
The late sociologist Philip Rieff was not a religious man, but he was a chronicler of the cultural revolution and a prophet of it. Rieff’s theory of culture, put simply, is that a culture is shaped by what it forbids (in his term, “remits”). In his 1966 classic “The Triumph of the Therapeutic,” Rieff identified Christianity’s teaching about sexuality (that it is only licit when expressed between one man and one woman, in a state of holy matrimony) as a core principle of Christian civilization. “Historically, the rejection of sexual individualism (which divorces pleasure and procreation) was the consensual matrix of Christian culture,” Rieff writes. He goes on to say that what is “revolutionary” in modern culture is the complete abandonment of the idea that renunciation (of whatever kind) is necessary, toward the belief that impulses should be released. Christianity never preached crude renunciation of sexuality, but rather developed a sophisticated way of spiritualizing it — and built an entire civilization around theories of the human person, and human purpose, that all depended on Christian sexual ethics.
That’s over now. It’s done. Rieff, who writes as a sociologist, points out that the West has abandoned the Christian sexual ethic; therefore, what we can rightly call Christian culture and civilization is also on the way out.
My sense is that though social conservatives may not be able to articulate it in quite this way, they intuit that if we lose the family, we lose far more. It could be that secular or lightly religious elites have a narrower way of viewing these things, seeing avoiding illegitimacy mostly or entirely as a way of maintaining economic stability — as it certainly is. But there is far more at stake, socially, politically, religiously, and indeed, as the non-believing Rieff held, civilizationally.
I think the idea that it’s okay to have children without being married is a meme — an idea that behaves like a virus. Given that white illegitimacy rates have at least quadrupled since my childhood, it does not surprise me in the least that certain people — middle-class, educated, religious, however you want to identify them — wish to separate their children from a population infected by that meme, as a way to protect their children from it, and the disastrous consequences of that bad idea. Murray writes in his conclusion:
For many years, I have been among those who argue (as I have in this book) that the growth in births to unmarried women has been a social catastrophe. But while those of us who take this position have been able to prove that other family structures have not worked as well as the traditional family, no one has been able to prove that alternative could not work as well. And so the social planners keep coming up with the next ne ingenious program that will compensate for the absence of fathers.
I am predicting that over the next few decades advances in evolutionary psychology are going to be conjoined with advances in genetic understanding, leading to a scientific consensus that goes something like this: There are genetic reasons, rooted in the mechanisms of human evolution, why little boys who grow up in neighborhoods without married fathers tend to reach adolescence not socialized to the norms of behavior that they will need to stay out of prison and to hold jobs. These same reasons explain why child abuse is, and always will be, concentrated among family structures in which the live-in male is not the married biological father. These same reasons explain why society’s attempts to compensate for the lack of married biological fathers don’t work and never will work.
There is no reason to be frightened of such knowledge. We will still be able to acknowledge that many single women do a wonderful job of raising their children. Social democrats may be able to design some outside interventions that do some good. But they will have to stop claiming that the traditional family is just one of many equally valid alternative. They will have to acknowledge that the traditional family plays a special, indispensable role in human flourishing and that social policy must be based on that truth.
The ideology of the Sexual Revolution, and of the belief that sexual autonomy is the absolute telos of our liberty, will take decades to be defeated. In the meantime, what of us trying to raise children to resist the catastrophic and signal disorder of our time and place? How do we do so while at the same time affirming that all children are to be loved and valued, and not stigmatized because of the accident of their birth? I’m not writing this from a position of remove; my family, like many families, has dealt with this issue. It’s a struggle, because while you absolutely don’t want your kids to do this, you also absolutely will not reject them or their children if they do. At least, you won’t if you are any kind of Christian. I know well the pain that social stigma can cause, and I am not sorry that children born today won’t suffer it as previous generations have suffered. And yet, there can be no denying that the erosion of the taboo has had, and will have, enormously important consequences for individuals, and for society. How do we uphold a vitally important standard while being compassionate towards those who fail to meet it. It’s a difficult challenge, one that cannot be avoided. I wish I knew the answer.
Still, from a macro level, at a certain point, you have to realize that the rain is not going to stop, and you have to get onto the ark with your family if you all aren’t going to drown. Sauve qui peut from this meme is a harsh response, but what is the alternative?