And the victims are women and their children
Marriage rates have hit their lowest point in a century. Today, according to a recent Pew report, one-in-five adults fall into the never-married category. (By comparison, in 1960, never-marrieds numbered about one-in-ten.) Falling marriage rates have given rise to another problem: unwed births. Forty years ago, when the trend towards later or delayed marriage took hold, American women generally postponed childbearing until marriage. Not so today. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that “nearly half of women aged 15- to 44-years-old ‘cohabited’ outside of marriage between 2006 and 2010,” and about “20 percent became pregnant” and gave birth during the first year of a cohabiting relationship.
The latest figures from the CDC reveal that 40 percent of all U.S. births and 48 percent of first-time births are to unmarried women, chiefly twenty-somethings. As a result, marriage experts say, American society is at a tipping point, “on the verge of … a new demographic reality where the majority of first births in the United States precede marriage.”
The unmarried mom trend has taken hold not only among poor women, but also among the largest demographic group of young women — "Middle American" women — that is, moderately educated women with a high-school diploma and perhaps a year or two of college.” As these women continue to forego marriage in favor of cohabitation, the number of unmarried mothers will remain high.
Should we be worried?
Yes, for two reasons. First, because real women and real children suffer when marriages don’t happen and "fragile families" result. “Births to unmarried women” is not just a statistical category. It’s the first page in the troubling life stories that unfold over decades for many of the children born to these single moms.
You’ve met these women.
They’re nurse’s aides in your grandpa’s assisted living facility, clerks at your local grocery store, and nighttime cleaners in your office building. They’re the women shivering at bus stops in the chilly dawn, toddlers in tow, headed to daycare or work. They have jobs, not careers, and often have low-commitment, unreliable, sometimes abusive men as partners — but not husbands. Many of these women find joy and meaning in their children, and the promise of a better life to come. But all too often, that promise never materializes, for them or their children.
The children suffer most. In spite of often-heroic parental efforts, children raised by unmarried mothers typically endure the disadvantages that come from too little parental time and money. They also tend to suffer from what scholar Isabel Sawhill calls “household churning” — the “family instability” that results from “a series of cohabiting relationships with different partners.” Children raised by an unmarried parent fare worse than children raised by two married parents on almost every measure of wellbeing. More likely to drop out, do poorly in school, abuse alcohol or drugs, engage in teen sex, be incarcerated, and suffer abuse at the hands of their mother’s sexual partner, their troubles continue well into adulthood.
Family instability and the attendant disadvantages for mothers and children are problematic enough. But there’s another reason to worry.
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