IN THE 1950s, A DISTANT TEENAGE RELATIVE of mine got pregnant out of wedlock. The father was a college boy who, despite repeated entreaties from the girl's mild-mannered papa, expressed absolutely no interest in marrying her and declared he had no intention of paying a dime's worth of child support. So her papa phoned one of the girl's doting uncles, a burly local politician with a well-deserved reputation as a street fighter and a license to carry a gun. After a "visit" from this uncle, the boy had a sudden change of heart. As family legend goes, he proposed on both knees and promised to provide for her until death -- death being a subject that her uncle had helped him to confront. Within weeks, a wedding date was set. Within months, a bouncing baby boy was born. Within years, more children followed. The girl was happy, the children were happy, and all was matter-of-factly forgiven. " You see," her Italian grandmother used to say, "one man can make the babies, but sometimes other men have to make the fathers."
Believe it or not, the fall issue of the Brookings Review brought that anecdote to mind. There, in a conventional-wisdom-shattering article, husband- and-wife economists George A. Akerlof and Janet L. Yellen argue that a large part of the surge in illegitimacy is due to the demise of the shotgun wedding. "New Mothers, Not Married: Technology Shock, the Demise of Shotgun Marriage, and the Increase in Out-of-Wedlock Births" sums up for a public-policy audience the research findings Akerlof and Yellen published in the May 1996 Quarterly Journal of Economics. Their fresh insights are timely, given the latest intellectual bidding over welfare's role in promoting illegitimacy.
By now, almost everyone agrees that the runaway illegitimacy rate -- 32 percent of U.S. live births in 1995, up from just 5.3 percent in 1960 -- is ruinous. The spiral in violent youth crime, for example, and the increase in substantiated child abuse and neglect are linked to the proliferation of fatherless households. In today's tragic tangle of social pathology, welfaredependent inner-city girls get impregnated by only-out-for-sex older men who have criminal records but no employment histories. Too often, the men hang around just long enough to maltreat the mothers and their offspring.
But the problem isn't only American. Between 1960 and 1992 the rate of " nonmarital births" (as the defining-deviancy-down demographers like to say) more than quintupled in almost every industrialized nation. On this measure, the United States is actually better off than Iceland (57 percent), Sweden (50 percent) and Denmark (46 percent), about even with France (33 percent) and the United Kingdom (30 percent), and worse off than Canada (27 percent) and Australia (24 percent).
Liberals and conservatives give different explanations for this illegitimate-baby boom. Conservative analysts insist that since 1960 illegitimacy among lowincome women has been driven skyward by perversely generous government welfare benefits that subsidize rather than stigmatize the irresponsible behavior of those who bear children outside marriage, often without the capacity to care for their young. Their solution: abolish or slash welfare. Liberals respond that welfare benefits have little, if any, effect on fertility. Their solution to illegitimacy: provide better "family planning services," including counseling, parenting classes, and easy-to- obtain abortions.
To date, the best scholarly summaries of the two points of view are Charles Murray's 1993 article in the Journal of Labor Economics and the 1995 Brookings volume Looking Before We Leap: Social Science and Welfare Reform, edited by R. Kent Weaver and William T. Dickens. Lately, the liberals have been losing empirical ground to Murray. For instance, there is now scattered evidence that welfare time limits may trim illegitimacy rates. And a recent study sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences suggests that among low- income women, every 1 percent increase in welfare benefits triggers a 1.2 percent increase in illegitimacy.
Still, neither side has clinched its case empirically. And some analysts are wary of both camps. In his Wriston Lecture at the Manhattan Institute in 1994, James Q. Wilson admonished both liberals and conservatives to face up to the fact that the recent debate about welfare reform and illegitimacy has been based almost entirely on "untested assumptions, ideological posturing, and perverse priorities." Clearly addressing himself mainly to conservative reformers, Wilson cautioned, "It is fathers whose behavior we most want to change, and nobody has yet explained how cutting off welfare to mothers will make biological fathers act like real fathers."
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