Stable families

Promote structures that protect children

More than half of births to women under 30 now occur outside marriage, and four of every 10 children in this country are born to parents who are not married.

That statistic comes from a study by Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzes government data.

“Outside marriage” covers broad territory: young women like those featured on the televisions shows “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom,” committed couples who for various reasons cannot or do not marry, single women who are financially stable, and women whose marriages or other relationships recently have ended.

Likewise, “marriage” includes some very unhealthy situations and is hardly a guarantee of permanence, so sweeping conclusions should be avoided.

Nonetheless, a large body of research demonstrates persuasively that children born outside marriage are more likely to be poor in childhood and stay poor in adulthood, are less likely to succeed in school and graduate from high school (and far less likely to graduate from college), and are more likely than their peers to suffer from a variety of problems and make a variety of poor choices.

The New York Times, in reporting on the study, published a picture of a woman and a small child, with the following caption:

“Amber Strader, of Lorain, Ohio, described her pregnancies as largely unplanned, a byproduct of relationships lacking commitment.”

Most Americans believe that an adult woman’s sexual behavior is her own business, as is anyone’s decision to marry. Most Americans also believe that adults should take personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions, rather than depending on help from taxpayers or society. Fair enough. But when a pregnancy becomes a child, that child is more than just “a byproduct” of a casual relationship.

A child also is more than just “a burden to society,” but society comes into play when children are born into poverty. So does government, because few Americans have the stomach to see children suffer severely for the actions of their parents.

Just as the poor will always be with us, so will children who were conceived unintentionally, but society benefits greatly from minimizing the number who are born to a parent or parents who cannot care for them adequately. Good public policy (and, not incidentally, good fiscal policy) links parenthood to stable, long-term relationships among individuals who have the resources to care for children.

And good public policy acknowledges the sexual realities of the 21st century. Abstinence is not a workable concept among adults. Affordable, effective contraception is essential, and policies that support families make a difference in families’ ability to support their children.

Demographics matter. White, employed college graduates still tend to marry before they have children, and they tend to stay married. Members of other groups, including those with little upward mobility, see few advantages to marriage, and they often cannot construct a convincing argument for lifelong partnerships. That’s their prerogative, but no one has yet suggested a consistently better environment for raising children than a formalized relationship between adults who are committed to each other and their children.

The line between support and interference is a thin one, as is the line between support and enabling, but there is solid ground on which to stand while promoting behavior that benefits the nation’s children.