Painfully concluding having babies out of wedlock is wrong

April 07, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

As politicians frame the discussion of welfare reform, as they offer their description of what a successful American family should look like, as they talk of the virtues and values we should be teaching our children, I find myself in a very uncomfortable place, a very unfamiliar place.

I find myself agreeing with them.

I am a member of the generation that rejected the Ozzie and Harriet family model. The revelation of my formative years, with Nixon and Laos and Kent State, was that you could not trust the pronouncements of white, male politicians. I came of age believing that I would be tolerant of any lifestyle choices others made, that I would not make the hard-eyed judgments that my parents made.

All of that is turned on its head now.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle says: ". . . bearing babies [out of wedlock] is, simply, wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong." And I am stunned to find myself in perfect harmony with him.

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala says: "I don't like to put this in moral terms. But I do believe that having children out of wedlock is just wrong." And I think she is right.

President Clinton says: "I believe this country would be a lot better off if children were born to married couples." And I agree with him, too.

And, finally, I am convinced that conservative sociologist Charles Murray is right: Illegitimacy is a worse social problem than crime, drugs, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else.

The evidence collected by social scientists on this topic is arriving at our doorstep by the boxful, and it is numbing.

Kids are having sex earlier and more often. The result is babies. In the 1950s and 1960s, 5 percent of the nation's births were out of wedlock. By 1990, it reached 27 percent. The number of pregnant, unmarried teens has doubled in 30 years. Nearly a million children a year are born out of wedlock.

The children of young, unmarried mothers are six times more likely to live in poverty, are two to three times more likely to have emotional or behavior problems. They are more likely to drop out, get pregnant as teen-agers, use drugs, be in trouble with the law. And they have a much higher risk of physical or sexual abuse.

All of this becomes a horrible family legacy. Teen mothers are twice as likely to have a mother who was a teen-age parent herself.

And this is not just happening in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. The rate of illegitimacy is rising faster in the white community than in the black community, and it is rising faster in the Hispanic community than either of those. And children are being born out of wedlock faster in so-called bedroom communities and rural communities than in cities.

According to "Kids Count," a report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where couples finished high school, married, and waited until at least age 20 to have a child, only 8 percent of the children were living in poverty in 1992. But where none of those conditions were met --no diploma, no marriage and a child before the age of 20 -- 79 percent of the children were found to be living in poverty.

These statistics are persuasive, but they might be easy for me, in the midst of my busy middle-class family life, to ignore. Not me. Not my problem. But these statistics are real children, and they go to school with my children and I know them.

They crave my attention when I volunteer in the classroom. They scurry into my lap when I read. They grouse at me when I scold. They touch my sleeve and say my name and look at me closely, inspecting my face, asking me questions. Can you help me with this? What do I do next? How did your Jessie get red hair?

At 6 years old, they are my child's best friend, but at 9 they are calling him angry names on the playground. By middle school, I see clearly, these same children will want nothing to do with my kids. By high school, I fear, they will be the reason there are metal detectors at the school door.

These statistics and these scenes from my children's school day bring me much closer to a place I never thought I would be. I never thought I would make a judgment about someone else's decision to have a child without a husband, let alone listen to a politician who advocates cutting off aid to single moms with kids.

My generation wanted to believe in the expansion of choice in this country -- mostly because we wanted all those choices open to us. We would have been the last to argue that a woman's age or her marital status had any bearing on her right to have a child.

I never wanted to make these kinds of judgments, and it is painful for me to say to these young women: Having babies you are too young to nurture and too poor to support is wrong. Having babies without a father in the home to help with what is clearly a two-person job is wrong.

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