Over half of all births to young adults in the United States now occur outside of marriage, and many of those are unplanned. Too often, the result is increased poverty for many children. Some argue for a return to traditional marriage. Others say we need more social support for unmarried parents. Family policy expert Isabel Sawhill offers a third option which involves what she calls childbearing by design, not by default. Diane and her guests discuss the impact of family structure on child well-being.


  • Isabel Sawhill Senior fellow of economic studies at The Brookings Institution; co-director of the Center on Children and Families. Her latest book is titled, " Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage."
  • Bradford Wilcox Director, the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia; visiting scholar, the American Enterprise Institute.
  • Olivia Golden Executive director, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP); former assistant secretary for children and families, Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration; author of "Reforming Child Welfare."

Graphic Sources: Center for Law and Social Policy , Pew , Family in Equality .

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from “Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage” by Isabel V. Sawhill. Copyright 2014 by Brookings Institution Press.


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Single parenthood is becoming the new normal. Teen pregnancies have plummeted in the last two decades, but parenting by unwed women has not declined. It's just moved up the age scale. Joining me in the studio to talk about single parenthood and its impact on child wellbeing, Isabel Sawhill of The Brookings Institution, Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project at the American Enterprise Institute, and Olivia Golden of the Center for Law and Social Policy.

  • 11:07:33

    MS. DIANE REHMI know many of you will have your own opinions. Weigh in by calling us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you.

  • 11:07:53

    MS. OLIVIA GOLDENGreat to be here.

  • 11:07:54

    MR. BRADFORD WILCOXGood to be here.

  • 11:07:55

    MS. ISABEL SAWHILLThank you.

  • 11:07:56

    REHMIsabel Sawhill, you've just written a new book. It's titled, "Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage." What's the state of marriage today in the U.S.?

  • 11:08:16

    SAWHILLWell, it almost looks as if marriage is disappearing. I -- part of me hopes it is not. But the data are a little bit discouraging. The trend has been in the wrong direction. Forty percent of all children in America are born outside of marriage. For women under 30, that proportion is 50 percent. The good news is that teenage pregnancy and births have come way down and the divorce rate is also shrinking a bit. But young people don't seem to be as attached to the idea of getting married as they used to be. And they are having children without marriage.

  • 11:09:04

    REHMBrad Wilcox, are we seeing a growing number of single parents then -- 20-somethings who've become the new teens?

  • 11:09:17

    WILCOXYeah, that's right. We have seen, as Bel just mentioned, a dramatic decline in teen pregnancy. Well, that's been sort of basically they're making up for it in their 20s and a lot of young women are having kids outside of marriage, either with a partner or without a partner. And so that's kind of, I think, our primary cause of concern. Because those kids who are born outside of marriage are much more likely to be exposed to both, you know, single parenthood, but also more family instability, which puts them off at a disadvantage as they move through life.

  • 11:09:43

    REHMAnd Olivia Golden, what about the incomes of those single women or women in relationships who do have children but are unmarried?

  • 11:09:58

    GOLDENWell, I guess I would highlight what's happened to good jobs both for married and unmarried young adults. There's a new report from the Pew Research Center, which has been highlighted in the last few days, which says that for never-married adult women, the primary criterion for a spouse, for a husband, is a steady job. Seventy-eight percent say that. And yet far fewer young men have that to offer than they did years ago. So to me, a key thing to focus on is the economy providing good jobs to young adults. I share Bel's view that the sharp reduction in teen pregnancy is an important positive.

  • 11:10:40

    GOLDENSo is the extraordinary increase in work by young -- by mothers in general, by parents. To get to where we need to get to for poor children and children in struggling families, we need to solidify that.

  • 11:10:55

    REHMTell me about this drop in teenage pregnancies. What's happened there and why do you suppose there's been such a drop, Bel?

  • 11:11:07

    SAWHILLYou know, it's kind of a mystery, Diane. Everybody who's looked at the drop in teen pregnancy and teen births has been somewhat puzzled. It's been very sharp. It's been particularly sharp in recent years. Some of that is the effects of the recession, with a lot of uncertainty and household hardship. Teens are getting more cautious perhaps. Some of it, I think, though is a change in the messaging about this. We have reality TV shows now, like "16 and Pregnant," that are showing teenagers that it's not an easy thing to become a parent at a very young age.

  • 11:11:49

    SAWHILLAnd there are new online efforts to get information out about birth control. And I think there's a growing consensus that being a teenager and a mother is just not a good combination. You need more education than ever.

  • 11:12:05

    REHMSo let's then, for the moment, put aside these teenage pregnancies and talk about what's happening among young adults. Is there -- and I don't know how many surveys have been done directly speaking with young women -- have they simply decided that they're capable? That they wish to have jobs, a child, they want to do it all? What's going on?

  • 11:12:40

    GOLDENWell, I would say -- I mean, again, some of these numbers are in this Pew Research Survey, but they are consistent with what's been seen before -- I think one big thing that's changed for young women -- I mean, two big things have changed -- one is bigger opportunities to work and earn, which Bel has highlighted. But the other is a far, far tougher labor market for them and for the young man than when we were young, right? So that right now -- I was thinking about Bel's phrase that the young people are drifters -- and I think of them as more swimming upstream, people who are struggling to hold on to the opportunity for economic security when there aren't full-time jobs for the less educated, when they're combining multiple jobs.

  • 11:13:25

    GOLDENSo I think that what the numbers suggest is that the choice to build -- to finding a young man who feels as though he provides a stable job and holding on to your own stable job feels very difficult. And many young women respond by postponing childbearing, which is the less teen pregnancy, less pregnancy in early 20s. But for everybody, it's just a very difficult environment to start a family.

  • 11:13:55

    REHMBut, Bel, you talk about two kinds of people. We've heard Olivia mention the drifters. What about the planners? You've got those who simply are putting off childbearing for one reason or another. And then there are the planners. Do they do better by those children than the drifters?

  • 11:14:27

    SAWHILLI think they definitely do. Let me clarify what we mean, or what I mean by drifters and planners. Drifters are people who are having children unintentionally -- children that they either didn't want or came way too soon in their life. And those young 20-somethings who are having children, they aren't necessarily choosing to have those children -- at least not then. Seventy percent of pregnancies to women under the age of 30 who are unmarried are unintended, according to the women themselves. And they say that after the baby is born, which you would think would be tough thing for a woman to do after she's bonded with the baby to say, well, no, I didn't really intend to have or want to have this child.

  • 11:15:15

    SAWHILLBut he or she came and I'm maybe happy about it now. Of course that's going to be a harder life to live. Those young women without stable partners and without enough education and maybe without a good job, maybe even unemployed, as Olivia says, are definitely going to be swimming upstream. But what they did was to drift into parenthood too soon. The planners, by contrast, tend to be the better educated. Brad has talked a lot about this. They typically finish school, often get a college degree. They don't have children before marriage. They marry late. They are marrying now in their late 20s and they're having children within marriage.

  • 11:16:01

    REHMSo, Brad, from your perspective, marriage is the answer?

  • 11:16:08

    WILCOXWell, marriage isn't the only answer. I think that's important to sort of put out there. I mean, I think I would agree with Olivia that we have to do a lot to improve the labor market for young adults, (word?) and less-educated young adults, and also to improve our educational policies for them. Too many of our policies focus on college. And only a third of American adults will actually get a college degree. We need to do a lot better work on both vocational training and apprenticeship work so we can improve the kinds of jobs and the kinds of incomes accessible to less-educated Americans, to improve their opportunities to get married, to have that stable economic foundation.

  • 11:16:36

    WILCOXBut what I am saying -- what I am, you know, putting out there today is that we can't exclude marriage from our conversation. Because there's no substitute for marriage when it comes to fostering stability for our kids, when it comes to connecting men to their children. There's just, you know, it doesn't matter if you look at Sweden or if you look at the United States or if you look at Colombia. I mean, there is no society, no country on this earth that is able to give kids stable two-parent homes to connect men to their children apart from marriage.

  • 11:17:06

    WILCOXSo if we want to kind of give kids from poor, working-class communities the same opportunities that we give to kids from college-educated communities -- which continue to sort of buy into a marriage norm in practice and in terms of the way they think about life -- we need to make sure that marriage is available and attractive and, you know, and accessible to Americans up and down the class ladder.

  • 11:17:27

    REHMSo are you talking about gay as well as straight couples?

  • 11:17:34

    WILCOXWell, I am, in terms of, you know, I think the, sort of, the jury is out in terms of where this -- where same-sex marriage will land with regards to child wellbeing. But we've opened the doors to same-sex marriage. And so marriage is now, you know, accessible to Americans regardless of sexual preference. But the question is, you know, why is this growing class divide emerging, where people who aren't college educated, you know, don't get married, don't stay married anywhere near as much as those who are college educated.

  • 11:18:02

    REHMSo you're talking about college education. You're talking about marriage as a solution. And, Olivia, you're talking about the economic availabilities. But, Bel, you say, neither of these solutions is really what you're after.

  • 11:18:25

    SAWHILLWell, I, of course, think that if we could bring back marriage, it would be a good thing. We just don't know how. At least I certainly don't know how. And I haven't heard any good solutions or seen any strong programs.

  • 11:18:38

    REHMAll right. We'll come back to our discussion about childhood and pregnancy outside marriage after a short break.

  • 11:20:00

    REHMAnd welcome back. Here with me, Bradford Wilcox. He's director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He's also visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Also Olivia Golden, executive director at the Center for Law and Social Policy. She's the author of reforming child welfare. And Isabel Sawhill. She's at the Brookings Institution. Her new book is titled "Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without marriage."

  • 11:20:48

    REHMIsabel, I had to interrupt you as you were talking about perhaps a different alternative.

  • 11:20:58

    SAWHILLI think that conventional response to this growth of single parents has been to say either we need to get them married or we need to give them more assistance. Those on the right say, let's get them married. Those on the left say, let's give them jobs and child care and other forms of support. And there's nothing wrong with either one of those ideas. I support them. But I don't think either one is going to meet the challenge.

  • 11:21:29

    SAWHILLAnd I think a better or a third alternative, one that is very much needed now is to reduce the drifting, to reduce the high rates of unplanned pregnancy and childbearing amongst the 20-something women who have the highest rates now of unplanned pregnancy in the nation.

  • 11:21:52

    REHMWhy do they have to be convinced? I mean, if the conversations on television by even programs that are on regularly have convinced the 16-year-olds that having a child on your own is not easy, why is it that the 20-somethings have simply not taken that message to heart?

  • 11:22:27

    SAWHILLI hope they will take that -- the message to heart but right now the fact is that they are drifting. They are not making decisions. They are not giving a lot of forethought to one of the most important decisions an adult ever makes, which is the decision to have a child. They're not thinking a lot about who they want to be the mother or the father of their child. And so they are having sex, that's what 20-somethings do, and sex leads to getting pregnant and having babies unless you're very, very careful about it. And people are making mistakes.

  • 11:23:07

    REHMSo you're looking at long-term contraception.

  • 11:23:14

    SAWHILLI believe that we could really transform this landscape if we could encourage more women to use long-acting forms of contraception like IUDs and implants, and if we could encourage providers, doctors to offer them in counsel about them more than they do right now. And if we could make them affordable. So that would be the agenda that, to me, would do a lot of good.

  • 11:23:42

    REHMSo you're saying the pill in and of itself is not a good enough answer, nor is a condom.

  • 11:23:54

    SAWHILLObviously the pill and the condom are better than nothing, far better than nothing but consider the following. At the end of five years, if you're sexually active for five years, which most young people are, and you're relying entirely on condoms, you and your partner, you're probability of getting pregnant is 63 percent.

  • 11:24:14

    REHMSixty-three percent...

  • 11:24:15

    SAWHILLSixty-three percent...

  • 11:24:16

    REHM...with the use of a condom.

  • 11:24:18

    SAWHILL...with the use of a condom. The pill, the probability of getting pregnant after five years is 38 percent. With the newer long-acting forms of contraception like IUDs it's only 2 percent. The reason is because these IUDs change the default from getting pregnant if you don't do something very consistently and carefully to not getting pregnant if you don't do anything.

  • 11:24:45

    REHMWhat about all of this, Bradford? Would you go along with the idea that not only is education, not only is good outlook on economic planning but also long-term birth control planning a good idea?

  • 11:25:07

    WILCOXI'm skeptical. I mean, I think we have to look at sort of the deeper issues here, and they're ones that Olivia has put up into our conversation in terms of the declining economic opportunities for less educated Americans. But beyond that I think there is a kind of crisis of trust. There's a crisis of fidelity that we're seeing now increasing among working class and poor young adults.

  • 11:25:27

    REHMBut what does that have to do with long-term planning?

  • 11:25:31

    WILCOXWell yeah, I think the concern here is that by seeing, you know, a technological solution as a kind of -- as a panacea potentially as a silver bullet we're not really acknowledging focusing on kind of what I would view as really the true issues here. And that is that we need to create a culture of responsibility. It's more about, you know, improving the prospects, the level of commitment between young adults rather than sort of seeing, you know, larks as an opportunity just, you know, to try to increase the odds that every child is conceived in a planned way.

  • 11:26:05

    REHMBut, Brad...

  • 11:26:06


  • 11:26:06

    REHM...aren't you sort of idealizing what the reality you'd like to see would be? Young people in their 20's are having sex. You've heard Bell talk about the failure rate of condoms, the failure rate of the pill. Tell me what you think about the advisability of long-term birth control.

  • 11:26:42

    WILCOXWell, once again, I think my concern here is that that's seen as a panacea when...

  • 11:26:46

    REHMI didn't hear her use that word.

  • 11:26:49

    WILCOXWell, but I think that, you know, the issue here is that back in the 1960s, you know, as Janet Yellen and George Akerlof have written about, the thinking was that the introduction of the pill and of more accessible and affordable and convenient contraception would reduce unplanned childbearing, would strengthen families and would otherwise sort of help American, you know, family life. And that's not, of course, what happened.

  • 11:27:17

    WILCOXAnd so the concern here on this particular policy suggestion is that larks might indeed, and I think would reduce the level of unplanned childbearing. And that would be a good thing. But my concern is how does it affect the relationship ecology when, you know, this new technology becomes widely available and widely used.

  • 11:27:38

    REHMI have the feeling that some people might take offense with your word lark. There may be couples who are dedicated to each other but who then have a child out of wedlock and that they do not consider it a lark.

  • 11:28:03

    WILCOXIt's all right. It's just a technical term for long-acting reversible contraception. This is...

  • 11:28:06

    REHMForgive me. Forgive me.

  • 11:28:07

    WILCOXYeah, that's the (word?) you were talking about.

  • 11:28:08

    REHMOkay. Olivia.

  • 11:28:10

    GOLDENWell, I wanted to highlight how valuable I found that aspect of Bell's book. I do think that her recommendation that it's not only access to contraception in general but access to particular kinds of contraception and having them be affordable offers adults another important choice and can benefit their children. I've been thinking a lot about the ways in which the Affordable Care Act, which makes health care more broadly available to poor families, can make a huge difference. And to me, this sounds like an important piece. I also think that having parents be able to get help for health and mental health problems, for example, helps them make better decisions. So I think it's a piece.

  • 11:28:47

    GOLDENFor me though the other piece is that if you're going to address children's poverty and lack of opportunity, you have to think about the 15 million children who are poor today and the 30 million children, if you add in those in struggling families just above the poverty level, and you have to think about what they need. And so for me that's about jobs. It's also about the ability to go back to school and be able to get into full time jobs and good jobs. That is, I don't think of it as assistance in Bell's phrase.

  • 11:29:19

    GOLDENI think of it as, you know, if you think of the young people who are making the choices that Bell was describing, you're often talking about a young woman or a young man who's working three part time jobs, who's trying to scrape up the money to go back to community college. But when they tell their employer they have to have Wednesday and Friday afternoons to go to school the employer says, well, then I'm going to pull your hours. And so there's enormous instability stress and unfairness in their lives.

  • 11:29:49

    GOLDENAnd so I actually think that while voluntary -- the access to contraception, to long-lasting contraception that Bell described sounds like an important piece that the Affordable Care Act makes possible, that the job and economic support piece is crucial as well.

  • 11:30:06

    REHMBell, the fact of the matter is that in today's job market, it's harder and harder for the 20-somethings to find work. Is it fair to ask those young people to wait to have a child even if they don't have a full time job? They're thinking about their biological clocks. They're thinking about the health of a child born to a 20-something as opposed to a 40-something. What's your thinking?

  • 11:30:52

    SAWHILLWell, because we've had such high levels of unemployment for quite a long time now as a result of the Great Recession, I have more sympathy for this situation than I otherwise would. But in a normal economy someone isn't going to be unemployed for five or ten years. And if they're unemployed for a year or two, I think that's not probably the right time to have a child. I think you should have a job before you have a child or at least be married to or partnered with someone who has a job. I don't think it's a very responsible thing to have a child when you have no source of income to support that child.

  • 11:31:33

    REHMAnd are we seeing more and more young adults who do not have accountable income having children?

  • 11:31:47

    SAWHILLWe do have a rather surprising drop in the employment of young men. Olivia already spoke to this. The Pew report that she mentioned shows a drop in the labor force participation of young men. And that is not just an issue of unemployment. That's part of it. It is something that's going on with they're not being attached to the labor market for long periods. And I don't pretend to understand that phenomenon. It is very concerning and it probably does intersect with the issues we're talking about.

  • 11:32:26

    SAWHILLBut I think some of it has to do with the fact that women now have opportunities to work and they're taking jobs, often very low-pay jobs. They need support through higher minimum wages or higher earned income tax credit. But they are trying to do almost all of it and that's stressful.

  • 11:32:50

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Brad, I assume you would agree that women should be thinking of not only their own welfare but that of the child before they enter into a relationship. But that doesn't seem always the case.

  • 11:33:17

    WILCOXYeah, and that's, of course, the story of human history, right. This has always been a sort of perennial concern. But I think the problem today is that there are more young adults, both women and men who are, you know, having kids outside of marriage and they're not prepared for the responsibilities of parenthood both financially, emotionally and practically. And until and unless we actually do something about that, you know, we're not going to close the kinds of enormous class divides we're now seeing at a variety of levels in terms of marriage and economics and socially more generally.

  • 11:33:49

    REHMHere's an email from Owens (sic) who says, "I'm a single dad with primary custody of my two children. That's what families are for whether a person is married or not. I'm not saying marriage is the answer but certainly family, churches, other community support, the last recourse should always be government," Olivia.

  • 11:34:22

    GOLDENSo I think that what Owen has just highlighted is something I was going to say earlier about what we know from the child development research that children need, right. Children need economic stability and they need at least one deep stable nurturing relationship with a caring adult. And parents, in order to provide that, typically need emotional support themselves, as Owen says he gets from extended family.

  • 11:34:45

    GOLDENSo I think that for families having that ability to raise children, it's about all kinds of things. I would put good jobs and stability and the rest of your life pretty important on that list. It's about the setting and the links and the extended family that you have. I think Bell's point -- one key point of hers is that when you have the ability to decide when you're going to have your next child that helps you too.

  • 11:35:15

    GOLDENBut I want to highlight that for parents to have the stability and the economic support they need, it's not only single parents that are struggling today. When you look at those census numbers, 5 million kids in married-couple families, 20 percent of kids in Hispanic married-couple families are poor. So having that security is an issue for families of all types.

  • 11:35:38

    REHMAnd what you're saying, Bell, is that having that child outside of wedlock simply exacerbates the problem.

  • 11:35:50

    SAWHILLThat's right. The overall poverty rate amongst married parent families is about 11 percent. Amongst single parents it is about 45 percent. So this is a huge difference. And I very much admire people like Owen who are trying to do it on their own. But there's no question that it's a lot tougher to raise a child by yourself than it is to do it with someone else. Two parents have twice as much time that they can allocate either to earning more income or to spending more time with their children.

  • 11:36:27

    REHMDo you think, Bell, that marriage is the answer?

  • 11:36:33

    SAWHILLI don't think that marriage is probably coming back. What I see amongst the youngest generation is a turning away from marriage.

  • 11:36:44


  • 11:36:45

    SAWHILLI'm not -- I think they simply find it a rather old fashioned institution. And many of them are living together at the time the baby is born. What we call cohabitation has increased a lot. The interesting thing about cohabitation in America is that it's very unstable. By the time the child is age five, about half of those cohabiting parents have split up.

  • 11:37:15

    REHMIsabel Sawhill. Her new book is titled "Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without marriage." Short break, your calls when we come back.

  • 11:39:58

    REHMAnd welcome back. We have many emails, many phone calls. Here's an email from Christine, who says when does the burden of contraception fall on the fathers of these children? I hear lots of talk and emphasis about contraception for women. IUDs, implants, et cetera. But what can men do to prevent these unwanted, unplanned pregnancies? You used to hear lots of talk about vasectomies, Bill. Less so, now.

  • 11:40:40

    SAWHILLActually, there is a very high level of sterilization of both men and women in the United States, far more than people are aware of. It's all voluntary, thank goodness. I think the reason you don't hear more about men is because all of the reversible forms of contraception, with the exception of the condom, are really made for women. And I think when you're in your 20s, it is a very hard decision to decide that you don't ever want a child. And these methods, like vasectomy, are not so easily reversible.

  • 11:41:21

    REHMAll right. What do you think about vasectomies for men, Brad?

  • 11:41:28

    WILCOXWell, we're talking here really about young adults, who typically, I think, have, you know, a family formation strategy in mind at some level, so I think if we're talking about, how do we address the problem of unwed child bearing or unplanned pregnancy, we have to think about strategies besides vasectomies. You know, at this particular demographic.

  • 11:41:47

    REHMAnd to you, Olivia, we were talking earlier about whether it's fair to ask people to wait until they are economically, financially stable. But they planned with whom they're going to have a child. What about that?

  • 11:42:07

    GOLDENSo, to me, that's partly a question of whether you're asking them to wait five years, seven years, 10 years, or wait forever. Right? In other words, young people who are going to law school or medical school have a good prospect that their lives will be better at the end of that. And they'll -- it's very reasonable, and in fact, they are waiting. Most of us on this panel who are all old enough that when we grew up, there were jobs waiting for us. Summers after high school and after college had that opportunity.

  • 11:42:35

    GOLDENBut when you're talking about young people today, who are less educated, who have just high school or some college, and who don't necessarily see a prospect that in 10 years, at age 30, their lives will be better, it's much more difficult. And I guess my perspective is that yes, I absolutely agree with Bel that an individual adult or woman should have the chance to choose, but I also want to see us change the context. The education and job context, because I think it's very -- it's sad for us, as a country if we're saying, we can't support young people forming families in their 20s.

  • 11:43:09

    REHMOn the other hand, you're saying, Bel, we have the need for a new social norm.

  • 11:43:17

    SAWHILLI think we do have the need for a new social norm. The old norm was don't have a child outside of marriage. People are no longer resonating to that norm. Young people. So, I think the new norm needs to be more focused on children. The welfare of your child or your child to be. Don't have a child until you're ready to be a parent. Now on Olivia's point about what happens if people don't have jobs for many, many years. I'd say we are in really big trouble as a country if for, as long as five years, or seven years, pick your number, two people, neither one of them can find work.

  • 11:44:04

    SAWHILLI don't think that's quite the reality, but I would be really distressed if it were. If you have a ten dollar an hour job and there are two of you, you're gonna make 40,000 dollars a year.

  • 11:44:18

    REHMAll right. Let's go to A.C. in Farmville, North Carolina. You're on the air.

  • 11:44:26

    A.C.Good morning. My grandmother was a widow with four children, a long time ago, in the 30s and 40s. Two of her daughters ended up being single mothers, because even though they did get paper marriages, the males in these encounters decided to depart for whatever reason. And so, the marriage, or the piece of paper and the marriage did not keep these males with these women. But these women raised children. And what it taught me, as an individual, is that I must be responsible for myself and my household and whatever child I may bring into the world. And the quality of one's parenting is not necessarily determined by the size of one's bank account.

  • 11:45:19

    REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. Brad.

  • 11:45:22

    WILCOXWell, you know, I agree with the caller on many fronts, and I think that many single mothers do a great job raising their kids. I was raised by a single mom. I think she did a pretty good job. But my point as a sociologist is it's harder for single parents to raise their kids. They have less financial resources. They have fewer hands, you know, in the mix. You know, when they're stressed out, there's no one to spell them, oftentimes. And so I think we have to think about, particularly at the community level, if we have lots of communities where there are lots of single parents, that tends to affect not only those kids, but the larger mobility.

  • 11:45:51

    WILCOXWe found, for instance, Raj Chetty's new study from Harvard. He found, looking at mobility, for rags to riches mobility, that quote, the strongest and most robust predictor, in his work, is the fraction of children with single parents. That was more important than economic inequality. It was more important than school quality. It was more important than racial segregation. So, if we're talking about trying to increase mobility and increase opportunity in our country, you have to figure out a way to make stronger two parent families, both for individuals and also for communities as well.

  • 11:46:20


  • 11:46:20

    GOLDENWell, I found that -- that set of comments very moving and I want to focus on her last point, the quality of your parenting isn't determined by your bank account. And I would say that there are an enormous amount of things about being -- about struggling that make it hard to be a good parent. Like, for example, you know, not being able to keep food on the table, not being able to managing multiple jobs. At the same time, it's completely true that the ability to nurture and connect with your children is not fundamentally about money. So, what I keep thinking is that there are lots and lots of practical solutions to help parents at all income levels be better parents.

  • 11:47:02

    GOLDENWe can have more -- we can have steady jobs available. We can have people have leave to be home with sick kids.

  • 11:47:08

    REHMAnd better daycare.

  • 11:47:09

    GOLDENAnd better child care.

  • 11:47:10


  • 11:47:10

    GOLDENAnd better child care that's available to working parents, as opposed to you have to miss your job...

  • 11:47:15


  • 11:47:15

    GOLDEN...to take your kid to early childhood. So, I would just highlight that the quality of parenting is central and there are lots of practical ways of supporting it.

  • 11:47:23

    REHMHere's an email from Shelly, who says she wants to point out that not all those born to unmarried mothers are at risk or in single parent homes. My boyfriend and I are both 40 in very stable, committed relationship. We're college graduates with comfortable careers. We have a daughter and another on the way. We are not married by choice. We feel the well-being of our children is not related to a piece of paper issued by the state, but by the strength of our relationship and love for one another. Brad.

  • 11:48:09

    WILCOXWell, you know, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, right, and the point that I make is that marriage is institution. It's about, at the beginning, you know, a ceremony with family and friends. You know, when you cohab with someone and you walk in, you know, for that first night of cohabitation, there's no music. There are no family members there kind of watching you, encouraging you, keeping you accountable. Marriage is different in that way. And so for ordinary Americans, their odds of keeping it together, of going the distance, are much higher if they start their relationship and enter into parenthood as a married couple.

  • 11:48:41

    WILCOXCompared to all the alternative, including cohabitation. So, we're talking about the average story here is that marriage fosters stability for adults and especially for kids. And that's important on a whole bunch of outcomes.

  • 11:48:53

    REHMBut is marriage on the decline?

  • 11:48:57

    WILCOXIt is on the decline. And so, I think we have to be honest here. You know, that if we're concerned about, you know, equality, if we're concerned about opportunity in America, the continued decline of marriage, which is focused, once again, among working class and poor Americans, will only increase the income divide. It will only increase the social divide.

  • 11:49:12

    REHMHow can you encourage people to marry?

  • 11:49:15

    WILCOXWell, I think you have to make marriage much more attractive today.

  • 11:49:19

    REHMHow so?

  • 11:49:19

    WILCOXWell, you know, Bel says that not much has worked, you know, on the marriage front. But I would say we haven't tried much. I mean, she has helped pioneer the way on the teen pregnancy and they did a ton of things, from MTV to local schools, you know? To any number of things. We haven't tried anything near to that kind of campaign when it comes to marriage. So, to say nothing has worked, I mean, we haven't really tried that much, in terms of trying to make marriage more attractive and appealing and necessary for parenthood today in America.

  • 11:49:46

    REHMOh my goodness. Bridal Magazine, all these...

  • 11:49:49

    WILCOXThat's a kind of romantic, soul mate model marriage, which is not about -- marriage is, you know, I would say, at the end of the day, it's about providing a stable context for the rearing of one's children.

  • 11:49:58

    REHMBel, is that possible to make marriage seem more attractive?

  • 11:50:06

    SAWHILLWell, I don't have any quarrel at all with those who, like Brad, who are out there trying to explain to the world that marriage has many benefits. By the way, not just benefits for children, but benefits for adults, as well.

  • 11:50:21


  • 11:50:22

    SAWHILLIt's been an institution that has worked pretty well for eons, so we should not dismiss it lightly. That doesn't mean, though, that I don't think we should move on to talk about other issues, where I think we can make some real progress. For example, if we could encourage people to choose more carefully who they had children with and when they had those children, they might wait until they were older, more mature, had been through a few more relationships, had figured out what they really wanted in a partner. And would make commitments that were more stable and better for their children.

  • 11:51:03

    REHMBut would that we were so wise? I must say, and I confess, shortly after my husband and I began seeing each other, I knew, at age 23, that this was the man I not only wanted to marry, but wanted to have children with. How many 23-year-olds can say that and know it and be as lucky as I was? Olivia.

  • 11:51:43

    GOLDENWell, what your comment makes me think about is that one of the things that I admired in Bel's book is that she's very -- she expresses the way, you express the way your personal life affects your perspective, right?

  • 11:51:53

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:51:53

    GOLDENAnd often, researchers say that everything we have to say is objective. Bel talks about growing up in the 50s and 60s. So, it made me think about my growing up with very different messages. With a message that, like the caller said, work is primary. You need to be able to handle whatever life throws at you. And that, in turn, makes me think about the fact that social norms, in a country as complicated as America, are challenging. And they feel different for people who are struggling, who are dealing with a different history. So I guess where that brings me is, in some ways, partly to what Bel was saying earlier, that I don't know of any strategies that have promoted marriage on the part of government.

  • 11:52:32

    GOLDENExcept some that started with jobs. The Project New Hope in Milwaukee long ago, which guaranteed jobs to low income people had an increase in marriage, because there were fewer divorces.

  • 11:52:43

    REHMInteresting. Interesting.

  • 11:52:43

    GOLDENYeah. So, I think there are, but I guess I, in general, think we may have to cope with the world as it is.

  • 11:52:50

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Melissa in Moore, Oklahoma. You're on the air.

  • 11:53:00

    MELISSAHow are you?

  • 11:53:02

    REHMGood, thanks.

  • 11:53:03

    MELISSAGood. So, as important as it is for us to be concerned about relationships and our grown up affairs of economics, you know, it's the kids, at the end of the day that need to be the ones to learn from this. And I had to divorce after 11 years from a domestic violence that almost ended in death.

  • 11:53:25

    REHMOh, I'm sorry.

  • 11:53:27

    MELISSAAnd I -- well, I'm a better person for it. And I am sorry for those who have to deal with that. And that is another topic. But my two children and I have been staying for nine years now, on our own. I do have a boyfriend who cares about us, but getting married just for the sake of getting by, especially in today's culture, there's not a lot of people that are on the same level with me. You know, I'm checking cell phones every night. We're doing endless amounts of homework. We're in honor classes. We're doing music. We're not watching TV and that's hard to find.

  • 11:54:00

    MELISSAAnd not giving in to those means just to have money, you know, I've even given up a higher car payment just to take a lesser paying job. So, making changes in the household to show my kids what it's about to get by. Not just that we can do whatever it takes to get by. Some -- money's money and relationships come and go, but culture and morale, I think, is really important.

  • 11:54:25

    REHMMelissa, I'm so glad you called. And I'm sure you are too, Olivia.

  • 11:54:31

    GOLDENWell, I just think that -- I guess the main thing I want to say to that caller is congratulations for that incredibly hard work and the time you're putting in to your kids' future.

  • 11:54:42

    REHMAnd the problem is that so many become so frustrated at being alone, raising a child alone, that the child suffers both socially, emotionally and economically.

  • 11:55:02

    SAWHILLI just want to say, about the last caller, that she reminds all of us that not everyone is a single parent by choice.

  • 11:55:09


  • 11:55:09

    SAWHILLShe had to leave her marriage and she is coping in an almost heroic way, it sounds like. So, I really think it's very important that when we, as social scientists, talk about averages, we not appear to be insensitive to every circumstance that someone may face.

  • 11:55:32

    REHMAnd one more thing. An email from Paul in Orange Park, Florida, who says, IUDs do not provide any protection from sexually transmitted diseases. I think you would acknowledge that.

  • 11:55:51

    SAWHILLI totally agree. This is something that is true of all forms of contraception, except the condom. So, ideally, you need to use both.

  • 11:56:01

    REHMAnd yet, the condom, if used alone...

  • 11:56:06

    SAWHILLUsed alone, it has a very high failure rate.

  • 11:56:10

    REHMIsabel Sawhill. She's author of the new book, "Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage." Bradford Wilcox. He's at the American Enterprise Institute. Olivia Golden, she's at the Center for Law and Social Policy, and author of "Reforming Child Welfare." Thank you all.

  • 11:56:39

    SAWHILLThank you.

  • 11:56:39

    GOLDENThank you.

  • 11:56:40

    WILCOXThank you.

  • 11:56:40

    REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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