A Straight Line Pointing Up to Calamity

GEORGE F. WILL

November 01, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The senator glanced at the numbers and saw && in his mind's eye something frightening: a straight line, ascending. Pat Moynihan had in hand the 1991 natal statistics which, together with those from 1970-1990, produce a graph line pointing straight to calamity.

Fifty years ago 5 percent of American births were to unmarried women. That began to change in the 1960s. By 1970 it was 10 percent. Since then the increasing rate has produced a virtually straight line -- almost 1 percent a year for 21 years.

We bandy the word ''crisis'' so casually it is drained of power. However, America's real crisis can be presented numerically in the percentages of births to unmarried women:

Year ... ... All Races ... ... Whites ... ... Blacks

1970 ... ... 10.7 ... .... ... 5.6 ... ... ... 37.5

1975 ... ... 14.3 ... ... ... 7.3 ... ... ... 46.8

1980 ... ... 17.8 ... ... ... 10.2 ... ... .. 55.5

1985 ... ... 22.0 ... ... ... 14.5 ... ... .. 60.1

1990 ... ... 28.0 ... ... ... 20.1 ... ... .. 65.2

1991 ... ... 29.5 ... ... ... 21.8 ... ... .. 67.9

What makes the natal statistics alarming is the ascending straight line for the whole society. What makes the statistics terrifying is that the graph line of births to unmarried black women remains straight. That is, the rate of increase is not slowing even at extraordinarily high levels.

Minority births are primarily responsible for the fact that the VTC percentage of births to unmarried women is over 70 percent in Detroit, over 60 percent in Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark, St. Louis and Washington, over 50 percent in Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But Senator Moynihan surmises that San Francisco's lower ratio -- 31.5 -- is the result of a minority: Asian-Americans.

Lee Rainwater, a Harvard sociologist emeritus, testifying to the Finance Committee that Senator Moynihan chairs, foresees 40 percent of all American births, and 80 percent of minority births, out of wedlock by the turn of the century. In 1976 there was an ominous portent during the Bicentennial: the percentage of black births to unmarried women passed 50 percent. Forty years after that, in 2016 if the ascending line on the graph stays straight, 50 percent of births to all races will be out of wedlock.

Now, trends are not inevitabilities. However, rising illegitimacy is a self-reinforcing trend because of the many mechanisms of the intergenerational transmission of poverty. The principal one is: People tend to parent as they were parented.

What has all this to do with the subject of the hearings -- ''Social Behavior and Health Care Costs'' -- at which Senator Moynihan examined the natal statistics? Lots.

America is undergoing a demographic transformation the cost of which will be crushing. Why? Because poverty is, strictly speaking, sickening.

The children of unmarried women are particularly apt to be poor. And poverty, with its attendant evils -- ignorance, dropping out of school, domestic and other violence, drug abuse, joblessness -- is unhealthy.

In the inaugural issue of MediaCritic, a new quarterly devoted to analysis of contemporary journalism, Fred Barnes, a senior editor of The New Republic, examines some myths purveyed by some journalism concerning the ''health-care crisis,'' including the myth that there is such a crisis. Two supposed signs of the ''crisis'' are America's high rate of infant mortality and low rate of immunization of preschool children.

Mr. Barnes notes that America's high rate of teen-age pregnancy means a large number of low birth-weight babies and a high mortality rate. ''Doctors,'' says Mr. Barnes, ''make heroic efforts to save these babies, many of whom would be declared 'born dead' in other countries and thus not counted toward the infant-mortality rate.''

Regarding immunization rates, Mr. Barnes reports that about 98 percent of children are fully vaccinated by the time they are of school age because vaccination is required for admission to school. He says, ''Faced with a mandate, parents comply.'' Negligent or otherwise incompetent parents behave responsibly only when required. Such parents are particularly apt to be young and unmarried.

High infant-mortality rates and low immunization rates are less health care problems -- less problems of the distribution of medicine -- than problems of social behavior, although the political class, other than Mr. Moynihan, is reluctant to say so. He quotes Dr. Reynolds Farley of the University of Michigan: ''Shifts in attitudes imply that our norms may no longer abjure childbearing by unmarried women.'' What can be done?

One clue may be in William Buckley's words that Senator Moynihan cites: ''The most readily identifiable tragedy of modern life is the illegitimate child.'' To many people today there is something anachronistic about the word ''illegitimate.'' They find jarring because it is ''judgmental.'' But reviving the value judgments behind that locution may be the only way to bend down the line on Senator Moynihan's graph.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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