The National Review

May 1, 2000 6:30 p.m.

1,293,567 Casualties

A social trend claims young victims.

By Roger Clegg, general counsel Center for Equal Opportunity
The National Review

The National Center for Health Statistics has just released its report, "Births: Final Data for 1998," which contained this unhappy finding: "The number of births to unmarried women rose 3 percent to 1,293,567, the highest number ever reported." That means that one birth in three is now out of wedlock.

The report also found that illegitimate-birth rates "vary considerably by race and Hispanic origin." The percentage of out-of-wedlock births for non-Hispanic whites is 21.9 percent, but for non-Hispanic blacks it's 69.3 percent. For Hispanics it's 41.6 percent, and for American Indians 59.3 percent. For Asians and Pacific Islanders overall the number is 15.6 percent, but this varies from 51.1 percent for Hawaiians to 6.4 percent and 9.7 percent for Chinese and Japanese Americans, respectively.

All of this is consistent with other recent data. Forty-five percent of black women managers or professionals have had an illegitimate child, compared to 3 percent of managerial or professional whites. Half of all births in New York City are illegitimate, and in some neighborhoods the proportion reaches 80 percent. A 1997 survey by the federal government found that the percentage of black high-school students who said they have had sex was 73 percent, versus 44 percent for whites and 52 percent for Hispanics.

But it hasn't always been this way. In 1940, the black illegitimacy rate was 19 percent, less than what it is for whites now.

Does it matter? Of course it matters. It is only common sense that 1.3 million illegitimate children is a significant national problem.

Anyone who has raised a child knows how enormously time-consuming the job is for two parents, let alone one. Anyone who has raised a boy, in particular, knows that the father's role, as model and disciplinarian, is irreplaceable. Anyone who is not Murphy Brown knows that the resources — in terms of time and money — available to a two-parent home make the job easier there than where there is only one parent. To paraphrase George Orwell, some things are so obvious that only a sociologist can miss them.

In a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute a couple of years ago, Professor James Q. Wilson said that the empirical data regarding the importance of family structure is "so strong that even some sociologists believe it." For instance: Children in one-parent families are twice as likely to drop out of school as those in two-parent homes. Boys in one-parent families are much more likely to be both out of school and out of work. Girls in one-parent families are twice as likely to have an out-of-wedlock birth.

Professor Wilson cites a Department of Health and Human Services study of 30,000 American households, which found that for whites, blacks, and Hispanics at every income level except for the very highest, children raised in single-parent homes were more likely to be suspended from school, to have emotional problems, and to behave badly. He added that another study showed that white children of an unmarried woman were much more likely than those in a two-parent family to become delinquents, even after controlling for income.

When Cynthia Harper of the University of Pennsylvania and Sara S. McLanahan of Princeton University tracked a sample of 6000 males aged 14 to 22 from 1979 to 1993, they found that boys whose fathers were absent from the household had double the odds of being incarcerated. This was true even when other factors, such as race, income, parents' education, and urban residence, were held constant. Indeed, family structure was more important than income. Each year spent without a father in the home increases the odds of future incarceration by 5 percent, so that a child born to an unwed mother was 2.5 times more likely to end up imprisoned, versus 1.5 times for a boy whose parents split up when he was a teenager.

Professor William Galston has pointed out that you need to do only three things to avoid poverty in this country: finish high school, marry before having a child, and produce the child after the age of 20. And of the three the second would seem to be the key, since if you violate it you are also more likely to violate the first and third. Only 8 percent of the children from families who do these three things are poor, versus 79 percent from those who fail to.

The staggering illegitimacy rates are so central a cause of social pathologies, especially for African Americans, that one would expect the problem to be widely known and discussed — but it isn't. Among academics and the media, it has long been oh-so-politically-incorrect to suggest that there might be something wrong with having children without getting married. But now the problem goes deeper than that. Over half the public, and 70 percent of those under age 35, think that no shame should attach to having an out-of-wedlock child, according to Professor Wilson.

It is also politically incorrect to point out the disparity in illegitimacy rates between whites and Asians versus blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans. What is especially galling to the left is that the gap can hardly be attributed to discrimination. It is not the Ku Klux Klan that is impregnating all these women. Indeed, the rates really started to skyrocket in the 1960s — that is, the same decade that the Jim Crow era ended and national anti-discrimination legislation was passed. And it is not all minority groups that have the higher rates.

A child's environment IS his or her parents. It makes an enormous difference to a child's economic well-being and his moral and intellectual development if the mother must do the work alone. When the illegitimacy rate of blacks is more than triple that of whites, there will continue to be huge gaps in the aggregate achievements and pathologies of the two groups. That is a fact, and anyone who fails to acknowledge the problem of illegitimacy while decrying social inequality is being intellectually dishonest.