October 4, 2005

Cornell Prof Studies Unmarried Mothers

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Marriage may be next behind the dodo bird in the line of extinction. Government policies over the last decade have addressed growing numbers of out-of-wedlock mothers, leading a Cornell professor to study the issue.

Prof. David Lichter, policy analysis and management, has done numerous studies focusing on the issue of out-of-wedlock childbearing.

“Marriage is a smoke screen to deflect public attention of governmental obligations such as providing jobs and fair wages,” he said.

He added that he felt there was a trend for Republicans to view marriage as a solution rather than a problem of economic and emotional dependence.

The government has passed policies such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 in an attempt to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

Statistically, only six percent of married couples with children in the United States live below the government’s poverty line, compared with 36 percent of female-headed families, he said. There is also an impact linked to race. Both white and black unwed mothers were about 30 percent less likely to marry than women of other races, the study found. Unwed Hispanic women, however, were 56 percent less likely to marry than those who were single and childless. Unwed white mothers were more likely than their childless counterparts to marry or partner with men of another race, whereas minority single mothers were less likely to form interracial unions.

In her book, The Age of the Unwed Mother, Maggie Gallagher writes: “What has changed most in recent decades is not who gets pregnant, but who gets married … The single biggest change in recent decades has been the declining proportion of pregnant single teens who marry.”

In fact, the number of young women having children in their teens has been fairly steady since the 1970s. Marriage rates have been declining for the past 20 years, he said, and of those that actually happen, approximately 45 to 50 percent end in divorce. Nowadays, there is much less social stigma associated with out-of-wedlock childbearing. Many educational institutions, for instance, accommodate single mothers by providing free daycare services while the young mothers attend class.

The tendency toward intergenerational reproduction of family patterns poses a welfare dilemma for policymakers. In other words, girls growing up with single moms tend to perpetuate the cycle by becoming single mothers themselves. The 30 percent of unwed mothers who do eventually say their vows tend to be matched with men who are older, less educated and have lower earnings, Lichter said. Unwed mothers are also less likely than other women to improve their socio-economic status through marriage. Thus, marriage has gradually become less of a route for social mobility, and incentives to marry have diminished.

Lichter proposed a possibly more efficient, long term governmental policy solution: money may be better spent on promoting employment and educational opportunities for low-income men and women rather than merely on encouraging marriage. However, Lichter said that as of now, implementation of his proposals has not yet been well-received by the government and that President Bush was unreceptive to his suggestions when they met face to face.

Archived article by Devan Flahive
Sun Contributor