On Tuesday, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that U.S. teen birth rates dropped to their lowest rate in decades. According to the report, the number of teenage births has declined by nearly 40 percent in the last 20 years.
Of course, this is good news, especially considering the myriad negative implications for children born to teen moms, such as lower school achievement and an increased risk of becoming teen parents themselves.
But there’s a flipside to this positive news. Despite the dip in teen births, over the last five decades, the number of unwed mothers in the U.S. has actually soared. Whereas in the 1960s fewer than 10 percent of all babies were born outside of marriage, today that number is over 40 percent. And for some groups it has already reached 50 percent or far surpassed it. For example, nearly half of Hispanic children and nearly three-fourths of African-American children are born to single mothers annually.
This is because fewer and fewer marriages are taking place in the United States, a trend that is especially common in low-income communities, where many of these single mothers reside. Yet it’s not that these women don’t value or desire marriage; rather, the perpetuation of single-motherhood has fueled a cycle in which unwed birth has become the norm. Instead of marriage and childbearing being a sequential process, the two have become separate, unassociated practices. And far too often, marriage never becomes part of the story.
The consequences are dire. Perhaps gravest is the significantly enhanced risk of poverty these women and children face. A child born to a single mom is more than five times as likely to live in poverty as a child born to married parents. That’s why it’s no coincidence that along with the growing rate of unwed childbearing, the U.S. has also experienced drastic increases in welfare costs over the decades.
Yet the outcomes of being raised without a father are not just economic. Children raised without fathers are also at increased risk of developing emotional and behavioral problems, participating in risky and delinquent behavior, dropping out of high school, and being abused. Furthermore, being raised outside of an intact family increases the likelihood of sexual activity for teens, thereby increasing their chances of becoming a single parent and thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and dependence.
Unfortunately, most of the talk about lowering out-of-wedlock birth centers on increasing access to birth control. But research reveals that lack of available birth control is not the problem. Researchers find that many single, low-income women are having babies because they desire children. Although marriage has broken down, bearing children is still highly valued.
The United States must focus more energy on encouraging strong marriages, especially in low-income communities. Additionally, policymakers must eliminate laws that penalize marriage. Strong communities and nations cannot be built outside the bonds of marriage. These bonds increase the likelihood that children will be cared for and sustained, instead of trapped in a cycle of poverty and dependence.