Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Money, Sex & Out-of-Wedlock Births

The Wall Street Journal (increasingly one of my favorite sources of editorials) came out with this piece a couple weeks ago, and since it was originally not available online I good intentions of typing in selections to post. However, good intentions being what they are, I didn't get around to doing anything with it till I noticed today that it's now available on the OpinionJournal website. (Remember, as they are wont to tell their subscribers at every single chance, that the Journal will start being published on Saturdays beginning this coming week!)

Anyway, Amy L. Wax of the UPenn Law School wrote a piece called What Women Want about how, despite the fact it was mostly the upper and upper middle classes that pushed the "sexual revolution" the upper classes still invariably marry when having children, while the lower classes suffer from staggering rates of illegitimacy. Some selections:

When it comes to single-parent families, Everybody's Doing It. That, it seems, is the received wisdom--but it's not true. As Charles Murray noticed decades ago and demographers have known for some time, the structure of families has diverged drastically by social class. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among women with no more than a high-school education has skyrocketed since the 1960s but remains very low among college graduates. Divorce has declined among the well-off but is climbing among the unskilled. Although almost all college graduates still marry eventually, marriage rates are dropping steadily among those without a high-school degree....

What can we learn from these tales of working-class city life and the demographic facts behind them? First, the decades-old demise of clear standards following the sexual revolution, at worst a mixed blessing for the well-off, has hit the less privileged hard. The disparities in family structure suggest that people are not equal in their ability to handle newfound sexual freedom. The well-heeled don't often defend the 1950s, but they haven't left them entirely behind. That behavior differs by social position should come as no surprise. Foresight and capacity for self-governance are qualities that make for economic success. They also make for orderly families.

Second, marital and sexual behavior depend more on mores than money. Restraint and social norms, rather than economic circumstances, best account for class differences. As Christopher Jencks and David Ellwood at Harvard have noted, economic factors fail to explain why privileged women, who are best equipped to go the single-motherhood route, insist upon marriage before children. Work by sociologists indicates that men may be the key. What we know about why marriages endure suggests that better-off men more often honor monogamy and strive for sexual fidelity. In family life, as in education, degrees matter: The rare or hidden lapse is worlds apart from infidelity as a way of life.

Left-leaning scholars adamantly resist this picture. They insist that family breakdown is all about economic opportunity. The problem is not that people are behaving badly or that--heaven forbid--one class is more prudent than another, but that our policies are inadequate. Material conditions, not moral commitments, are the source of domestic chaos. To change behavior, we must give the poor more resources.

Decades of experience belie this view. Poor relief and welfare policy, whether strict or lenient, can't rescue disintegrating families. Rather, as Mr. Jencks and others have shown, the very opposite is true: Wise behavior can secure economic well-being. Men and women who stick together, stay out of trouble, and work steadily are rarely poor, and their children surmount poverty as well. Public money and policy gimmicks are no substitute for good conduct.

This reminded me of some work I read a while back studying the relative economic fortunes of different groups of Hispanic immigrants in the US. What the study found was that the relative economic fortunes of immigrants from various central and south American countries varied in direct proportion to the levels of illegitimacy that had developed within the different populations.

Some demographers assume this must be the result of poor economic conditions causing increased levels of illegitimacy, but it seems perhaps more persuasive that the varying economic fortunes of these groups result from their differing levels of out-of-wedlock births. Immigrant groups that manage to maintain a strong taboo against pre-marital sex are far more likely to life themselves out of poverty than those that allow familial breakdown.

The more interesting question is what causes the illegitimacy disparity between rich and poor; educated and non-educated. At least from immediate observation, it doesn't seem accurate that the children of the upper and upper middle classes have less pre-marital sex than those of the lower classes. Liberal opinion makers seem to feel that the difference here is that the well off have more access to birth control and abortion, and so the disparity can be solved by providing the poor with more "family planning services".

I think there's some of that. But there's also an attitude difference. According to Wax's article, the interviews that sociologists did with inner city single mothers showed (unsurprisingly) that they nearly universally desired stable married relationships in which to raise their children. However, they were willing to accept single motherhood as a second best when marriage seemed unavailable given the men in their social circles. I think that must be the key. Most upper and upper-middle class women do not seem to see single motherhood as an acceptable fallback position.

Speaking in the general sense (meaning that 5-10% of women having out-of-wedlock children when marriage is not available is not considered a trend, but 50% doing so is) it appears that the difference is that many in the upper and middle class pursue pre-marital sex for romance/recreation, but are not willing to have children except within marriage or a relationship that shows signs of leading to or being functionally identical to marriage. This isn't necessarily an exercise of extreme virtue on their part. Functional marriage is generally available to women in these social classes, and so it seems both wise and feasible to hold out for it before assuming the vulnerabilities and responsibilities of parenthood. Poor inner city women, by contrast, are often faced with a world in which it appears that there are no faithful, responsible men available to marry. Large numbers seem to then give up hope and essentially say, "Marriage would be nice if I could get it, but I won't let the lack of it keep me from having children."

It seems like nothing can break this cycle except the willingness to remain single and childless if no suitable marriage partner is available. And given how strong the reproductive urge is, most people only achieve this if they have strong religious or cultural pressures brought to bear on them to avoid per-marital intercourse and/or childbearing.

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