The War on Poverty and Out of Wedlock Births

The 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty is generating numerous conversations about poverty and the government’s role in social change. But we are avoiding the one conversation we need to have: the impact of changing social norms around out of wedlock births.

Social norms are an important tool to promote the ongoing success and health of a society, ours included – they help insure that adults behave in the manner necessary to successfully operate in society and perhaps more importantly that children learn those same behaviors and skills. As the old saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child”. The parents are certainly the primary caretakers and moral educators. However the social norms of the village, of society, support the parents in their efforts to rear their children.

It wasn’t that long ago that our social norms were harshly critical of women having children outside of marriage. From a societal standpoint, this made a lot of sense; a husband and wife working together to rear their children have a far better chance of creating successful, self-sufficient adults. Statistically, this has been proven time and again; the single strongest indicator of a child’s future is the presence of two parents.

But social norms can also support a given distribution of power and prejudices within a society, with the goal of insuring those in power remain there – social norms can promote inequality. The social norms against homosexuality and inter-racial marriage certainly fall under this category. And social norms are in some ways inherently cruel. They work by inflicting social pain on the people that transgress the norms as a lesson for the rest of us, to make sure we do stay within the boundaries. This cruelty was particularly harsh for the children of unwed mothers – they were socially penalized for the actions of their mothers.

The movement away from the social norm that stigmatized unwed mothers happened for any number of different reasons. The United States came to recognize that many existing norms ran counter to our ideas of equality and opportunity and this caused a questioning of norms in general. We were moving to a less harsh, gentler society. And women, in their struggle to achieve equality, actively pushed back against many of the norms that had defined the female’s place in society. The social norm against unwed mothers was viewed as yet another way that society controlled how women lived their lives. De-stigmatizing out of wedlock births gave women greater freedom to choose how to live their lives.

But the norm against out of wedlock births wasn’t there to help keep white males in power – it was there to protect the children, to make sure that children brought into this world were given the best chance of succeeding. Certainly it is possible for a single woman to successfully rear her children and for the children to grow to be happy, successful adults. I know many impressive women that have raised very impressive children without the help of the father. But the fact remains that while it can be done it takes a lot more work, and the chances of success are lower. No matter how many individual success stories we point to, statistically the children born to unwed mothers will have a harder time.

The irony of all of this is that while educated women led the drive to de-stigmatize out of wedlock births, they still follow the old norm. Kathryn Edin, a professor at Harvard, notes that 94 percent of births to college-educated women still occur within marriage, a rate virtually unchanged from a generation ago. Instead it’s uneducated women that have changed their behavior – “Now 57 percent of women with high-school degrees or less education are unmarried when they bear their first child.”

The large majority of children of educated, wealthier parents are born into two parent homes that give them the best chance of succeeding. But now the majority of children born to poor, uneducated women are starting life at an even greater disadvantage – not only do they lack economic resources but they lack that second parent that would greatly increase their chances of growing into happy, successful adults. Ending the social norm against children out of wedlock might have increased the freedom of these unwed mothers, but at a cost to their children and our society.

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