Over half of all births to young adults in the United States now occur outside of marriage, and many are unplanned. The result is increased poverty and inequality for children. The left argues for more social support for unmarried parents; the right argues for a return to traditional marriage.
In Generation Unbound , Isabel V. Sawhill offers a third approach: change "drifters" into "planners." In a well-written and accessible survey of the impact of family structure on child well-being, Sawhill contrasts "planners," who are delaying parenthood until after they marry, with "drifters," who are having unplanned children early and outside of marriage. These two distinct patterns are contributing to an emerging class divide and threatening social mobility in the United States.
Sawhill draws on insights from the new field of behavioral economics, showing that it is possible, by changing the default, to move from a culture that accepts a high number of unplanned pregnancies to a culture in which adults only have children when they are ready to be a parent.
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About the Author
Isabel V. Sawhill is a senior fellow in Economic Studies at Brookings, where she holds the Cabot Family Chair. She also serves as codirector of the Center on Children and Families. She is the coauthor (with Ron Haskins) of Creating an Opportunity Society (Brookings, 2009) and board president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Read an Excerpt
Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage
By Isabel V. Sawhill
Brookings Institution PressCopyright © 2014 The Brookings Institution
All rights reserved.
Understand that the right to choose your own path is a sacred privilege. Use it. Dwell in possibility.
Ashley is a 22-year-old single woman from a working-class neighborhood. She is attending community college, hoping to become a medical technician. She gets pregnant and drops out of school. Neither Ashley nor her boyfriend, Eric, has a steady job. They don't believe in abortion. A baby is born; within two years they have split up and Ashley has a new boyfriend, with whom she has a second baby.
Sam and Stephanie met in medical school. Now they are both doctors in their early thirties. They have one child. A full-time nanny from Peru is teaching the child to be bilingual. Sam and Stephanie spend all of their free time on child-oriented activities, including trips to the zoo, home-based science projects, and reading Cat in the Hat out loud.
Tom and Sebastian are two gay men with successful careers. They live together and have carefully chosen two different egg donors and surrogate mothers in order to have children. Their two daughters are now 5 and 7 and appear to be flourishing.
These family profiles (but not the names) are real. Families like these dot the contemporary landscape. The variations are endless and no longer seem particularly surprising. Single mothers, divorced couples, two-earner families, and same-sex partnerships are all as common as dandelions in spring. The old model of the family consisting of a breadwinning husband and a stay-at-home wife still exists, but that model is rare.
What is happening here? Will we ever see a return of the old model or has marriage as we once knew it gone forever? What might take its place? Can the needs of children be reconciled with the new freedoms afforded to adults? How can we improve the life prospects of the next generation? And what changes in public policy and private decisionmaking are needed to make this possible?
Let's start with the good news: we have a lot more choices than in the past. You no longer have to be married to have sex pretty much as often as you like. You can marry or cohabit with a "significant other." You can have children in or out of marriage. In an increasing number of states you can marry someone of the same sex. I am old enough to remember when we called a woman who had sex before marriage "loose"; cohabitation "living in sin"; a child born outside of marriage "illegitimate"; and a relationship with someone of the same sex "unnatural." These phrases are a reminder of how the times have changed—and at lightning speed.
We like having choices. If I type "chocolate ice cream" into my supermarket's online search engine, I get 100 varieties to choose from: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, Belgian chocolate, fudge brownie, chocolate swirl—it goes on and on. When I was growing up, ice cream was a rare treat; it came in three flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Although my ice cream choices have expanded, the best one for me now is "none of the above." But whether I eat ice cream or not, or choose the wrong flavor, it will not do any lasting harm. Not so with marriage and childbearing. These are high-stakes decisions. If you marry the wrong person or have a baby you are ill-prepared to support financially or emotionally, those decisions cast a long shadow that may last a lifetime.
The defaults used to be much clearer than they are now. We not only had fewer flavors of ice cream to choose from; we also had fewer acceptable ways to form a family. We were guided by social norms to follow a scripted path. As someone who grew up in the 1950s and formed a family in the 1960s, I followed the same path as many of my friends: some dating and cautious experiments with relationships in college, then marriage, followed by a child—and only later a career. In my generation we departed from that path at our peril. Loose women lost the respect of their friends. Unwed pregnant women were sent to Aunt Hattie's or to a special "home" to have the baby, which was then put up for adoption. Gays hid in the closet. A divorced man could not aspire to be president; a woman could not aspire to be president at all.
Very few of us, I suspect, want to turn back the clock. I certainly do not. But the youngest generation, no longer bound by these restrictions, has a new set of challenges. Lacking a clear script, some are choosing well; others are floundering: I call them "the planners" and "the drifters." Realistically, of course, we are all some of both.
In this book I argue that drifting into parenthood is a bad idea. Too many young adults are sliding into relationships and having babies before they are ready to make the commitments to each other and to their children that parenthood requires. A majority of new mothers under 30 are not married to their children's fathers. And those unmarried parents are unlikely to marry or to stay together for very long. The solution is to change the default from having children to not having them until you and your partner want them and are both ready to be parents. Social norms that used to stigmatize unwed parenting now need to stigmatize unplanned parenting. New low-maintenance and long-acting forms of birth control make changing the default possible. (Imagine being able to eat all the chocolate ice cream you want without gaining weight.) In combination with more education and career opportunities for young adults, newer and little-used forms of contraception have the potential to transform the life prospects of children.
Does it matter if some people drift while others plan? Yes, hugely. It matters for the young adults making these choices, and it matters even more for their children. Children are the heart of the matter. Children are poorly served by adults who drift into parenthood, rather than planning and preparing for it. They deserve to be born to parents who have made good decisions, created a stable family environment, and made a commitment to their welfare for the duration of their childhoods and beyond.
We used to have an institution that provided children with this kind of stable environment. It was called marriage. It was the expected way to raise children. Marriage provided not just a secure environment for children; it meant that the resources of two adults—their time, their money, their emotional support—were potentially available to the child. If we could return marriage rates to their 1970 level, the child poverty rate would be about 20 percent lower. Inequality would be reduced as well. Of course, having married parents was no guarantee that children would do well. They were not always good parents and they did not always stay together. Still, on balance, children benefited from this arrangement. Some still do.
Unfortunately, marriage is on the wane, and as a result, children are in trouble. As someone who was happily married for over forty years, I mourn the loss and wish it could be otherwise. But the genie is out of the bottle. No amount of wishful thinking will put it back. But that doesn't mean we should give up. Civic and religious institutions have a role to play. Government can design policies that are more marriage-friendly. Young adults still say they want to marry someday, and we can encourage them to do so. But right now, among women under 30, the simple fact is that half of all babies are born outside of marriage. Often the mother is living with the father at the time of the birth, but these cohabiting relationships tend to be temporary. About four in ten will have ended before the child is age 5.
What is going on here? First and foremost, women's opportunities have expanded. The sexual revolution has delinked sex from marriage (but not sex from childbearing). Declining economic prospects for men have played a role. But the feminist revolution takes center stage: once women discovered that they could earn a paycheck and take charge of their own destinies, they not only began to raise more children on their own, but also set a higher bar for the kinds of men they were willing to marry, or stay married to. In 2012, 28 percent of families with children were headed by a single mom and a much smaller but growing number by a single dad. Not all of them are single parents by choice, and many are doing a more-than-adequate job of caring for their children. Still, it is a tough road for any lone adult to follow, especially for those with few resources or social supports.
What does it all mean and why does it matter? On balance, marriage appears to have been good for adults. Married people are happier, healthier, and wealthier than their unmarried counterparts—even after adjusting for some obvious differences between the two groups. That does not mean, however, that people should stay together in the face of serious conflicts; divorce is an important safety valve, and making it easier to obtain has been, in my view, the right thing to do. For example, it has reduced depression and suicide, especially among women. However, divorce is no longer the main driver of single parenthood; unwed childbearing is. Divorce rates have declined since the 1980s, in part because people are marrying later than in the past and because those who marry are better educated. And although the proportion of all babies born outside of marriage has soared, overall, women are having fewer babies than in the past. Indeed, a rapidly growing number of women are having none at all (18 percent by their early forties). Children are expensive. A child can cost the typical couple the equivalent of around $1 million per child if we include the costs of the mother taking some time off or working less than full-time. And although parenthood can be satisfying in the long run, all the academic evidence, as well as reports from parents themselves, suggests that it is very stressful on a daily basis. Happiness plunges during the child-rearing years.
In response to women's changing roles, men have changed as well, but not nearly enough. A husband may think his wife's working is fine, but not if it requires him to sacrifice his own career. Husbands may regularly wash the dishes, but only if they are thanked for helping out. The gaps between what young men and women expect from their intimate partners are still quite large. To be sure, fathers are doing a lot more than in the past where housework and child care are concerned. But mothers continue to do almost twice as much as fathers. Assumptions about who is responsible for what are still linked to gender. A colleague reports that her husband is happy to do the grocery shopping, but only after she has created the list of things to buy. Some men complain that this is the way women want it. Either way, managing a household can be stressful even if one has help with the task.
But evolving gender roles, while important for understanding the new landscape, are not the main focus of this book. Children are. Children raised in single-parent families typically do not do as well as those raised in married families. Generalizations are dangerous; many single parents are doing a terrific job under difficult circumstances. But on average, children from single-parent families do worse in school and in life. These children are four times more likely to be poor than those with married parents. Two parents have not just more income but also more time and other resources. Today's children are paying a price for the new choices afforded their parents.
Add to this a growing class divide in family formation patterns. It used to be that most children were raised by their married parents. For the children of the college-educated elites, that is still true. But for the rest of America, meaning roughly two-thirds of all children, it is no longer the case. Family structure must be added to a list of other gaps that are opening up, not just between rich and poor but more broadly between the struggling middle class and the more affluent. Everyone talks about the widening income gap between the rich and the rest of America, but there are many other gaps that are also growing: in parenting styles, in elementary school test scores, in college attendance rates, and in the extent of residential segregation between those at the bottom of the income distribution and those at the top. We are, in author Charles Murray's words, "coming apart": separating into tribes who no longer share the same life experiences and whose children no longer have the same opportunities to join the middle class. Add the divide in family formation patterns to the growing gaps in other arenas and the result is a toxic combination that is likely to reduce social mobility and threatens to produce a more permanently divided society in the United States.
At the top of the class structure are what I call, for short, "the planners." They are still marrying and having children within marriage, but only after establishing careers and typically not until they are in their late twenties or early thirties. The women in these families worry a lot about whether they can have it all: careers and families. At the bottom, and increasingly in middle America as well, are "the drifters." They are not worried about having it all. They simply want to get by. But their problems are compounded by the fact that they are having children early, increasingly outside of marriage and without the continuing support of a second parent. For the women of this group who lack college degrees and perhaps even professional aspirations, childbearing outside of marriage is now the new normal. Almost 60 percent of women without a bachelor's degree are having children outside of marriage. The women in this group overwhelmingly say they did not want to have a child, at least not at this stage of their life. The pill was supposed to change all of that. It was supposed to usher in a world of children by choice, not chance. That hasn't happened. A surprisingly large number of these women are also having children with more than one partner. The upshot is a degree of household churning and family instability that is not good for children. We used to think unwed childbearing was concentrated among low-income minority families living in the inner city. Racial differences still loom large: two-thirds of black children live in single-parent homes. But unwed childbearing has now crept up the socioeconomic scale and is a widespread pattern that includes all racial groups—in fact, just about everyone except the college-educated elites.
What to do? Those on the political left, a group that I call "village builders," argue for more social supports for families: better education, more and better-paying jobs (especially for men), subsidized child care, paid parental leave, more family-friendly workplaces, and much more assistance for the large number of low-income families headed by a single parent. Those on the right, "the traditionalists," argue for restoring marriage so that more children will have two stable and committed parents. Some conservatives even hope to bring back the old division of labor within the family, arguing that such an arrangement is biologically or religiously ordained.
In the end, I agree with much of what each side is arguing. The traditionalists are right that marriage is the best environment yet invented for raising children. However, government efforts to promote marriage have not worked in practice. And cultural trends, once they gain a certain momentum, are hard to reverse. These facts should give us pause. Government has limited tools with which to restore marriage as the primary institution for raising children. If marriage is to be revived, it will only be because civic and religious institutions are successful in encouraging more young people to marry before having children or because young people themselves see its value and act on these aspirations.
Excerpted from Generation Unbound by Isabel V. Sawhill. Copyright © 2014 The Brookings Institution. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
1 An Introduction 1
2 The End of Marriage? 16
3 Why Should We Worry? 39
4 A Growing Class Divide 65
5 Traditionalists and Village Builders 83
6 Childbearing by Design, Not by Default 105
7 The Future: Less Marriage, Fewer Children? 129