Settling for Shocked: Drifting into Parenthood

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If I asked you what pops into your head when you hear "unwed mother," you'd likely think "teenager." But that's out-of-date.

Today's unwed mother is not a teenager, but is more likely to be in her 20s. While teen pregnancy has declined, out-of-wedlock births among 20-something women has exploded. Today, "fifty-eight percent of first births among working and lower middle classes . . . are now to unmarried women." That's right, I said 58 percent.

These numbers are, as Derek Thompson of "Atlantic Monthly" puts it, "shocking." We've heard a lot over the past few years about a growing class divide in American life. In this case, the divide involves differences over marriage.

Both educated, well-off Americans and their lower-middle-class counterparts are postponing marriage. But it's only the educated and well-off who also postpone childbirth, not the lower-middle class.

And it's not because the two groups have different beliefs about marriage. They don't. Affluent Americans, like their poorer counterparts, see marriage as an expression of personal affection; the link between marriage, sex, and procreation having been severed.

Instead the differences between the two groups can, to a significant degree, be traced to changes in the ways Americans select their spouses. Thompson sums up this change as going from "opposites attract" to "like-attracts-like."

Until relatively recently, he writes, "the typical marriage… involved special roles for the husband and wife." Thus, "Men who wanted to be executives would marry women who wanted to be housewives."

While it would be wrong to overstate the likelihood that an educated man would marry a working-class woman, it was certainly much more likely than it is today. The shift from "opposites-attract" to "like-attracts-like" means that "college graduates are more likely than ever to marry college graduates," and "high school dropouts are more likely to marry high school dropouts."

What social scientists call "assortative mating" has reduced the pool of marriageable men for lower-middle-class women. They're increasingly "surrounded by men with low and falling fortunes," few of whom are fatherhood material in any sense beyond the biological.

The predictable result is that, as Kay Hymowitz, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Kelleen Kaye write in the Wall Street Journal, "young women often drift 'unintentionally' into parenthood with men whom they believe not good enough to marry or not ready for it."

This "drift" into parenthood carries enormous personal, social, and economic costs. As Thompson reminds readers, "there is too much evidence that it deepens the divide between the haves and have-nots in America."

Thompson, along with Hymowitz, Wilcox, and Kaye, do a great job describing the phenomenon and its adverse consequences. Which leaves the question: What can we do about it?

Hymowitz and company write about "launching a national conversation" about the issue. But for such a conversation to be fruitful we'd need to ask a hard question: Are we as a culture prepared to revisit the issue of whether or not young people should be delaying marriage?

As we were told during the financial crisis, the benefits are enjoyed by a relative few, while the costs are born by the rest. The same can be said about delayed marriages and the severing of the link between marriage, sex, and procreation.

Poorer Americans cannot afford the freedoms that the more-affluent take for granted. In a truly just society this would prompt some real soul-searching on the part of the better-off. In ours, we seem to simply settle for being shocked.

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