Marriage is disappearing. More than 40 percent of new mothers are unmarried. Many young adults drift into parenthood unintentionally. They may be cohabiting at the time of their child’s birth, but about half of these couples will have split up by the time their child is 5 years old. College-educated young adults are still marrying before having children and planning their families more intentionally. The rest of America, about two-thirds of the population, is not.
We’ve been worrying about these trends for years, and wondering: Can marriage be restored as the standard way to raise children? As much as we might welcome a revival, I doubt that it will happen. The genie is out of the bottle. What we need instead is a new ethic of responsible parenthood. If we combine an updated social norm with greater reliance on the most effective forms of birth control, we can transform drifters into planners and improve children’s life prospects.
The drifters need better educational and job opportunities, but unless we come to grips with what is happening to marriage and parenting, progress will be limited. For every child lifted out of poverty by a social program, another one is entering poverty as a result of the continued breakdown of the American family. If we could turn back the marriage clock to 1970, before the sharp rise in divorce and single parenthood began, the child poverty rate would be 20 percent lower than it is now. Even some of our biggest social programs, like food stamps, do not reduce child poverty as much as unmarried parenthood has increased it.
How Likely Is It That Birth Control Could Let You Down?
Charts of probabilities of unintended pregnancy while using different contraception methods, for up to 10 years.
The decline in marriage and the growth of childbearing outside of marriage is partly a result of the limited economic prospects of those at the bottom. We should provide more education and job opportunities for unskilled men in particular, but the evidence that these policies will restore stable families is sketchy. For one thing, although less-educated men are struggling, they still earn more than their female counterparts, and moneywise two incomes in a household are always better than one.
Even if economics played a key role initially, it has propelled a huge shift in social norms that is by now deeply embedded in our culture. Not only are single-parent families far more common and socially acceptable than they were in the past, but scholars studying low-income or working-class communities have discovered that the women in these communities no longer think it is realistic to depend on the men in their lives. They have seen or experienced too much divorce, infidelity, substance abuse and other bad behavior to trust or fully rely on their partners.
Liberals argue that we should accept the new reality and support single parents by providing more child care, health care, food and cash assistance. These efforts help, but with one-third of all children now living in families like this, and child poverty rates in these families four times as high as they are in two-parent families, this is a hugely expensive proposition. It is also inconsistent with a public ethic that values self-sufficiency over dependency.
Conservatives, for their part, believe that the problem is cultural and that restoration of marriage is not only possible but the best route to reducing poverty and inequality. As Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, put it, “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.”
Conservatives, however, have never explained how to restore marriage. Everything they have tried — from marriage-education programs to changes in the way marriage is treated in tax and benefit programs — has had little or no effect.
The debate between these two camps has been going on for a long time with no resolution. I first encountered it when I wrote a book on the growth of single-parent families in the wake of the controversy spawned by the 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which argued that the breakdown of the black family was the cause of most social pathologies in inner city communities. Now single parenthood is as common among whites as it was among blacks in the mid-60s. (At that time, the proportion of black children living in single-parent families was 22 percent. It has subsequently risen to 72 percent.)
I encountered the debate again during the administration of President Bill Clinton when, as an associate director of the Office of Management and Budget and a member of the president’s welfare-reform task force, I heard the argument that providing unconditional assistance to women raising children on their own was a major reason for the proliferation of such families. Although any evidence of such an effect was weak at best, I supported Mr. Clinton’s effort in 1996 to make welfare conditional on work. I hoped this would at least make women think twice before having a child on their own. But the growth of births outside of marriage has continued almost unabated.
Not only are 40 percent of all children born outside marriage (50 percent among mothers under 30), but 60 percent of these births were unplanned. New parents often come to accept and love the baby, but it is not an auspicious beginning. Research I did with Quentin Karpilow and Joanna Venator at the Brookings Institution shows that unplanned births affect children’s development, including their chances of graduating from college and earning a middle-class income.
Such high rates of unplanned pregnancies may seem surprising given the ready availability of many forms of contraception. But it turns out that most people are not very good at using contraception consistently. Condoms, a popular contraceptive choice among young unmarried adults, have especially high failure rates. Among typical users, 63 percent will have experienced a pregnancy at the end of five years (40 percent will go on to have an abortion).
Long-acting reversible contraceptives (known in the field as LARCs and including implants and IUDs), could transform this landscape. The reason for high rates of unplanned pregnancies and births is not that young adults don’t understand that becoming a parent is challenging; it’s because they, like all of us, are prone to making mistakes and are often ambivalent about their intentions. If these or other new forms of contraception were more accessible and less costly, and if more people understood how effective and convenient they are, unplanned pregnancies would decline.
The reason is simple. LARCs change the default from having to do something difficult (reach for a condom or remember to take a pill every day) to not having to do anything until one is ready to be a parent. Becoming pregnant requires a very deliberate decision to have the IUD or implant removed. For this reason, IUDs are 17.8 percentage points more effective than condoms and 8.8 percentage points more effective than the pill at preventing pregnancy (although all of them are far better than using no protection at all, and condoms are still needed to protect against sexually transmitted infections). Despite a bad rap based on an earlier history associated with the dangerous Dalkon Shield, LARCs are also safe, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
A Washington University study of nearly 10,000 demographically representative women in the St. Louis region found that among those who were offered free contraception along with good counseling about the most effective methods, 75 percent chose a long-acting reversible contraceptive, and there was “an 80 percent reduction in teen births and a 75 percent reduction in abortions among women in the cohort compared to national statistics.” A similar program in Colorado, in which private funding was provided to 28 clinics to offer LARCs at little or no cost to women, also had great success, reducing births to high-risk, mostly poor young women, ages 15 to 24, by 27 percent between 2009 and 2011.
The upfront cost of this type of contraceptive can be high, as much as $1,000, but over a woman’s reproductive life it is cheaper than the pill. Research by my former Brookings colleagues Adam Thomas and Emily Monea shows that for every dollar invested in birth control, taxpayers save roughly five dollars on Medicaid-supported births and on social welfare payments for the mother and child. If these accidental births could be avoided, these 20-somethings might reach an age at which stable relationships are finally possible, unencumbered by a child from a previous relationship. And whether a woman finds a partner or not, by waiting she would be better prepared to raise a child by herself. Because the conversation has focused so heavily on marriage, we have lost sight of the fact that it is the quality of parenting that really matters, not just the structure of the family.
It is in this context that any efforts, like the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby to curtail access to the most effective forms of birth control, are misguided. If we could make the most effective forms of birth control available to all women with no co-payment, we would not only have healthier children and lower child poverty rates, we would limit the extent of government assistance people need in the process.
The Affordable Care Act required most insurance plans to cover all forms of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration, while also expanding Medicaid and community health centers. But the full implementation of these provisions is far from guaranteed. Current court challenges to the contraceptive coverage provision, the unwillingness of some states to expand Medicaid, and a lack of clinics and of doctors knowledgeable about and trained in the provision of LARCs are all impediments to an era of more responsible parenthood
But greater access to the most effective forms of contraception is not enough. We also need a new ethic of responsible parenthood. That means not having a child before you and your partner really want one and have thought about how you will care for that child. Those from less privileged backgrounds may worry that they will never be able to afford a child. But two full-time $10-an-hour jobs bring in roughly $40,000 a year, hardly a princely sum yet enough to support a family well above the poverty line, even after child care and other expenses. These families should be receiving child-care subsidies and other forms of help. I can even imagine making certain benefits conditional on greater responsibility on their part, but think that might be too great a threat to individual rights. Softer nudges toward more responsible behavior can work just as well.
Social norms do evolve. Fewer people now smoke and more of them wear seatbelts. Attitudes toward gays and women have shifted dramatically. Teenage pregnancy and birthrates have declined sharply in recent decades, partly because of new media messages (like the TV show “16 and Pregnant”) and an emerging consensus that it is simply not a good idea to have a child as a teenager. The problem of unintended births has moved up the age scale; a similar consensus could eventually emerge here too. Government or foundation-funded social marketing campaigns can change attitudes. Campaigns devoted to reducing teenage smoking and drunken driving have succeeded. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (on whose board I serve) has pioneered efforts of this kind to reduce pregnancy.
We need more (and better quality) child care and a higher minimum wage, as well as serious education and training for those who are struggling to care for their families. But government alone can’t solve this problem. Younger people must begin to take greater responsibility for their choices. The old social norm was, “Don’t have a child outside of marriage.” The new norm needs to be, “Don’t have a child until you and your partner are ready to be parents.” Whether or not it was a realistic norm in the past, it is now — precisely because newer forms of contraception make planning a family so much easier.
Well-functioning democracies are built on the premise that government has an obligation to promote the general welfare. But so do citizens. More support for those who are drifting is in order, but less drifting is also essential.
Isabel V. Sawhill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author, most recently, of Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage.