Facing the Bad News

The crazy news on births this year is that rising out-of-wedlock births are not news! In the upside-down-world of modern journalism two disturbing bits of data were interpreted in the press as good news: Rejoice! Out-of-wedlock birth rates are dropping and teen birth rates are dropping! Sounds good? Read further.

The first piece of bad news (the piece that was turned into good news): our total fertility rate has dropped below the replacement rate (2.1). It is now 2.086. The other (and really bad) news is that the percentage of children born out of wedlock birth has continued to rise. This year, for the first time, it broke through the 40 percent level. . .rising for all groups and all ages. (See tables 1 and 7)

Like others, the Washington Post made lemonade out of these lemons and rejoiced in the falling out-of-wedlock birth rates! To most lay people this sounds like news worth rejoicing over even if rising out-of-wedlock percentages are rising. A bit of explanation is in order.

The total birth rate dropped, which means women are having babies at a lesser rate. Also, last year they had fewer babies in raw numbers than the year before. Economists and demographers suspect that economic conditions have much to do with this change.

However this news on rates is about what did not happen. . .the babies that were not born. But looking at the babies who were born – those that entered our society in 2008 – we find that more were born out of wedlock than ever before. And across every ethnic group (except Asian-Americans) and every single age group without exception, from under age 15 to age 40, the percent born out of wedlock rose.

If the bad economy was indeed the driving force in reduced fertility rates, this motivator does not seem to carry weight with those who think it OK to bring children into the world without their birthright their right to the permanent marriage of their fathers and mothers. The bottom line for America is that we have sunk lower in our treatment of our children – yet again and we have a still greater proportion of neglected children.

The future will exact its price for this self-indulgence: lower happiness, health, mental health, educational achievement, income, and savings, along with greater rates of depression, anxiety, abuse, crime, addictions, and poverty. All these will place still more strain on the public purse, a purse which, as a long-term result of these out-of-wedlock births, will have proportionally fewer productive taxpayers capable of putting money into the public purse. Reaction from Congress and the White House: nil. Welcome to change as we have never known it.

In 1965, the Department of Labor issued Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which analyzed the implications of the out-of-wedlock birth rate of 1963, then at 23.6 percent for Black Americans – now at its highest ever, 72.3 percent. Back then the rate among Whites was 3.07 percent, now it is 28.6 percent. Data on births to Hispanic mothers were not gathered back then, but a rough rule of thumb has been that their percent of out-of-wedlock births has been roughly half way between the white and the black. For 2008 it was 52.5 percent.

We have a fair idea of what has happened to the black family particularly among poor and the working class blacks. For a few generations now they have, overwhelmingly, been without fathers, grandfathers, or great grandfathers in the home. Without these men taking care of the boys, they drop further and further behind their sisters, who in turn cannot conceive of marriage (for they have not seen it) nor imagine what men are like who are capable of marriage.

Many dismiss or repress the implications of these data for the rest of America. Others think the changes only apply to blacks. But look, for instance, at formerly Catholic Ireland, where, back in the 1950s and 1960s out-of-wedlock births were low ( just like in white America then), but now are over 33 percent. Crime used to be low there too and murder very rare. Murder and violence rates, however, have risen steadily since then. So too have addictions, depressions, violence against women and children, rape, and robberies. While results may differ a bit across nations, the common erosion of family, marriage, and Christian notions of sexuality will have similar results, no matter the group.

What may be a less visible but much more disturbing public effect than anything else so far mentioned is the probable demise, over time, of government as we know it. Slowly but inexorably, it is happening very visibly in family and marriage, the building blocks of society, the first rungs of government. The first “polis” to be governed is the family, governed by a father and mother who have enough self-governance to be fit for the project of family together – i.e. fit for marriage. That capacity for self-governance is clearly absent for a large portion of this country. With its decline also go the habits of common-good governance. From being self-reliant and giving of one’s surplus to the common good, more and more are now relying on others to pick up after them. Rather than helping they, expect to be helped – as their political right, their claim upon the polis.

It will take a very different form of government to govern a populace which does not take care of its own, but increasingly relies on others to do the irreplaceable work of parenting. Those who have wondered whether Middle Eastern countries have cultures capable of sustaining democracies might look a bit closer to home. In Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s inimitable phrase we continue our trend of “defining deviancy down.” This does not make for a self-reliant republic, much less for the nation that is the linchpin of democratic freedom across the world.

Patrick Fagan, Ph.D. is a Washington policy analyst and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Social Services Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services.