Monday, April 9, 2012

Unwed Mothers Not a New 'Concern'

In a recent speech, aspiring Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum (left) decried the number of children in this country born out of wedlock.  He said that 40 percent of babies are now born that way. To him, that represented the decline in morality. Naturally, the former senator feels that he could be the midwife to a new level of morality.

 “What we're seeing is a problem in our culture with respect to children being raised by children, children being raised out of wedlock, and the impact on society economically, the impact on society with respect to drug use and all -- a host of other things when children have children,” he insisted.  “…The bottom line is we have a problem in this country, and the family is fracturing.”

When I first heard the 40 percent figure, I figured Santorum was exaggerating.   He was not.  According to published reports, four in ten women are not married when they have children.  More than half of the babies are born to women who haven’t turned 30 yet.

In decrying the figures, however, Santorum missed a few “minor” details.

For example, the 40 percent figure seems high, but it’s not much above the 33 percent recorded 50 years ago.  Then, one-third of all marriages followed a pregnancy.  In the mid-1990s, again, 33 percent of all children were born to unwed mothers.

Then, too, the number of unwed mothers has not changed for at least five years.  There was a spurt during the rigidly conservative George W. Bush administration.  It has stabilized under the supposedly liberal Obama tenure.

Today’s economic downturn is intertwined as well.  Some of the women would like to marry, but if their household income rises too much, they will lose food stamps and childcare.  This isn’t a question of living on government handouts.  There simply aren’t enough jobs, and those readily available often pay minimum wage, guaranteeing even a motivated mother will stay below the poverty line unless she sacrifices childcare for employment.

That could only lead to more societal problems, not less.

Besides, the same people opposing birth control and distribution of information about human sexuality are the same one bemoaning illegitimate births. Do something about the economy and support Planned Parenthood, and maybe the unwed mother birth rate with change, although, in reality, that’s highly unlikely.

According to the study by Child Trends, a Washington research group, the fastest growing group of unwed mothers now is “white women in their 20s with some college education but no four-year degree.”  They are joining Black women, who have a history of being unwed mothers.

In Black culture, being an unwed mother carries little stigma.  The initial 1960s report blamed the high percentage of unwed Black mothers on “delinquency, joblessness and school failure,” but ignored social pressure.  Society continually portrays white women as attractive.  Having a child proved that a black woman was attractive to someone.  That may explain why 75 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers.

When women from a variety of various ethnic backgrounds are following the same behavior pattern, one thing is definitely true: like everything else, society is evolving.  The evidence goes far beyond maternity wards.  Today, according to the most recent census: “the proportion of young adults in the United States who have never been married now exceeds those who are married.” 

The statistics reflect a transformation of American society in the last 50 years.  In the 1960s, about 80 percent of all Americans got married.  Now:  “Among the total population ages 18 and older, the proportion married dropped from 57 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2009. This is the lowest percentage recorded since information on marital status was first collected by the U.S. Census Bureau more than 100 years ago.”

The decline in marriages and the subsequent rise in single parenting have nothing to do with morality.  It is the result of women wanting children without being encumbered with a husband.  The trend can be traced to women’s liberation efforts that began in the 1960s.  Women rightly were encouraged to be independent, strong and forthright in controlling their own lives.  What could be more fundamental than deciding when to become a mother?

At the same time, women don’t need men in the house as much.  “Family demographers point out that as women's wages have increased, fewer women rely on a spouse or partner to provide a weekly paycheck. Women now outnumber men in U.S. colleges, and a recent report by the Pew Research Center showed that there are a rapidly growing number of women who out-earn their husbands,” the Population Reference Bureau pointed out.

A New York Times story about unwed mothers supported that argument.  One woman was quoted as saying, “Women used to rely on men, but we don’t need to anymore.  We support ourselves. We support our kids.”

As a result, Santorum can fume all he wants, but whether he is in or out of the White House, he can expect unwed motherhood to continue to flourish.

Santorum also may be unaware that his “concern” has a familiar ring.  Two decades ago, then-Vice President Dan Quayle complained about unwed reporter (Candice Bergen) having a baby on a TV show titled Murphy Brown.  In a 1992 San Francisco speech, he said that Los Angeles riots that year were caused in part by a "poverty of values" that included the acceptance of unwed motherhood.  He was ridiculed for criticizing an actress playing a role, adding to his lightweight image already damaged by other gaffes.

His election chances promptly vanished.

Quayle now has some company in the vain effort to hold back inevitable change.  That didn’t work for Canute, the Danish king who supposedly commanded the tide to halt, or Sisyphus, who Dante described as continuing to push a giant boulder that rolls backwards just before he reaches the summit.  Santorum won’t have any more success.

Society moves at its own pace and its own direction.  Santorum can bleat all he wants about his desire to alter its course, but, in truth, he’ll simply be mouthing empty phrases right along with his meaningless statistics. 

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

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