Impact of Illegitimate Births Stirs Spirited Debate

By Deborah L. Cohen — October 26, 1994 9 min read
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Using the term “illegitimate” to describe the offspring of unwed parents today may seem not only unduly harsh, but also somewhat anachronistic.

Social and economic trends of recent decades have largely wiped away the stigma once associated with the term, which literally means illegal or against the law.

But a growing chorus of social scientists, public officials, and child advocates agree that children born out of wedlock are paying a price--and the stakes for society are just as high.

“Children are bearing the brunt of a profound cultural shift,” said Jean Bethke Elshtain, the director of the Center for Social and Political Thought at Vanderbilt University.

It is hard to separate the effects of illegitimacy from the conditions that often accompany it, including poverty, teenage parenthood, and the low educational status of parents. And divorce, in many cases, can be as damaging to children.

But concern over violence, family dissolution, and child poverty in cities, suburbs, and rural areas alike has focused public attention on the rising numbers of children living with unwed parents. And the issue has struck a chord with politicians across the ideological spectrum.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle drew fire for attacking single mothers after a 1992 speech in which he denounced the popular television character Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock.

In the past year, however, President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala have echoed themes Mr. Quayle sounded about the importance of two-parent families and responsible childbearing.

More Disadvantaged

In a speech to a group of Baptists last month, Mr. Clinton said the nation is “raising a whole generation of children who aren’t sure they’re the most important persons in the world to anybody.”

“That is a disaster,” he said. “It is wrong. And someone has to say again, ‘It is simply not right. You shouldn’t have a baby before you’re ready, and you shouldn’t have a baby when you’re not married.’”

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant U.S. secretary of labor, issued a report in 1965 linking rising illegitimacy among blacks to poverty and family breakdown, some critics cast him as a racist.

Today, the phenomenon of illegitimacy cuts across racial boundaries:

  • More than 700,000 of the 1.2 million illegitimate children born in the United States in 1991 were to white women, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
  • Nearly 30 percent of all births were to unmarried women in 1991--up 60 percent since 1980.
  • The number of children born to unmarried mothers has jumped 82 percent since 1980, according to the N.C.H.S.
  • U.S. Census Bureau data show that in 1993, 27 percent of all children lived with a single parent--and, for the first time, those children were almost as likely to live with an unmarried parent as with a divorced parent.

Although birthrates have risen more for older unmarried women in recent years than for teenagers, the policy debate has focused largely on younger, more disadvantaged mothers.

These young women still account for the largest number of unwed births, and their children are the most vulnerable to dropping out of school, going on welfare, and perpetuating the cycle of unwed births and poverty.

Children caught in that cycle may not be “ready to start school in a modern technological society, and more likely to experience real disadvantages,” said Kristin Moore, the executive director of Child Trends, a Washington-based firm that tracks data on children. “The question that needs to be asked is, would they be more ready if their parents were a little older and married--and would their parents, if they had had more opportunities, have chosen to delay childbearing and marriage?”

Cultural Shift

Proposals to stem unwed births range from cutting off or limiting welfare for young unmarried mothers to marshaling governments, schools, and communities to improve the social, educational, and career prospects of youths.

But a critical step, many say, is to revamp the messages conveyed by adults and institutions about having children.

“However the current situation got started ... there is no doubt about the fact that it is being sustained by a cultural climate in which previous constraints on behavior have been very substantially relaxed,” said William A. Galston, President Clinton’s deputy assistant for domestic policy.

A shift in public attitudes, he noted, could play the same role in curbing unwed births as in the movements that have advanced civil rights, environmental cleanups, and anti-smoking measures.

“I think we’re going to have a very spirited and perhaps even profound debate as to the policy implications of all this,” Mr. Galston said.

“The general Zeitgeist is such that I don’t think Murphy Brown would run that story line again if they were doing the show in 1994,” said Charles Murray, a social scientist with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Mr. Murray, who lambasted the welfare system in his 1984 book Losing Ground and is the co-author of a new book linking poverty to low intelligence, said he adopted his controversial stance to abolish welfare “because I didn’t think anything else would have much effect” in stemming unwed births. (See related story.)

Many members of Congress also have advanced welfare-reform strategies, albeit less extreme than Mr. Murray’s, to address the issue of illegitimacy.

The Clinton plan combines incentives to make work and marriage pay with tougher child-support enforcement and a grant program for school-based teenage-pregnancy-prevention programs.

But welfare policies alone, child advocates argue, do not cause and cannot curb illegitimacy.

‘Easy Sell’

The number of single parents has grown even as welfare benefits have declined, said Sarah McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. She also noted that single motherhood has been rising among more educated women who are not likely to need welfare, and that illegitimacy is still more common in the United States than in other countries with higher benefit levels.

Child-welfare groups also charge that the policy debates on illegitimacy are drawing attention away from the overriding issue of poverty. Census Bureau data released this month show child poverty in 1993 rose to its highest level in three decades, affecting 15.7 million children.

“The question I ask myself in these welfare debates is, are we trying to provide people tools to move out of poverty, or is it solely a matter of ending out-of-wedlock births?” asked Judith Jones, the founder and chairwoman of the council of advisers for the National Center for Children in Poverty, based at Columbia University.

Studies by Ms. McLanahan, who is the co-author of a recent book called Living With a Single Parent, show that children who grow up in single-parent homes are more likely to drop out of school than those who do not.

In addition, the studies found that among those children, girls are more likely to bear children out of wedlock and boys are more likely to be idle at age 20, compared with their peers in other households.

Poverty accounts most heavily for the lower achievement of children in single-parent families, Ms. McLanahan’s studies show.

And the effects of divorce can be at least as adverse as those of illegitimacy, she noted, if the family is also poor and if a child is left in a single-parent home at a young age.

Politicians find “it’s an easy sell to say we have to stop unwed teenage childbearing,” said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the vice president of the Institute for American Values in New York City. “But middle-class people don’t want to talk about divorce as a problem.”

Ms. Whitehead, who spotlighted the disadvantages of single parenthood for children in a 1993 Atlantic Monthly article titled “Dan Quayle Was Right,” also believes education campaigns targeted at youths are too narrow.

“One of the big messages should be that parental supervision of children really matters,” she said in a recent interview.

Lack of Prospects

Ms. Whitehead said she believes schools have been unduly scapegoated for the problems children from troubled families bring. Teachers say they see the strains of family discord and single parenthood translating into more behavior problems in the classroom and less interaction and involvement by parents, she said.

Ms. Whitehead also decried what she describes as the dismantling of youth-service agencies and recreation programs that once bridged the gap between home and school. Other experts argue that family-planning services have been stretched thin, and that access to and education about contraceptives is far from universal.

Another challenge for schools and social agencies is convincing disadvantaged youths that their prospects will improve if they delay childbearing, said Ms. Moore of Child Trends.

“The hardest part is the issue of motivation,” she said.

Youths with realistic expectations of going to college and earning middle-class incomes naturally see the advantage in delaying childbearing and in marrying first, said Paul Smith, the director of research for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington. But “it’s very hard to tell a young woman who has no academic or economic prospects, or marital prospects, that she ought nonetheless to keep from offending the public.”

Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said welfare and child-support policies must raise the “inconvenience level” of having a baby out of wedlock. He also stressed the need for vocational programs “that make sense” for noncollege-bound youths.

Finding Solutions

Efforts to combat the adverse effects of illegitimacy, many experts say, must address other serious problems single parents face.

Maurice Sykes, the deputy superintendent in charge of the center for systemic educational change in the District of Columbia public schools, said single parents often face increased stress linked with finding child care, solving childrearing problems, and meeting basic economic needs.

Schools must steer clear of stereotypes about single parents and “build on the resiliency the child and parent bring to the school” he said. “Nothing should take educators off the hook.”

Offering comprehensive social services on school grounds can ease the burden for both educators and families, he added.

Sex-education and family-life classes that give a realistic view of parenting, offered through schools and churches, may help, experts say, but they are only part of the solution.

The media, Ms. McLanahan and others argue, must also do a better job of delivering positive messages about sexual abstinence, contraception, and responsible parenting.

These messages, experts say, are not for young women alone. Both liberals and conservatives have stressed the need to instill in young men an appreciation of their financial and emotional roles as parents.

Mr. Murray, however, offered the view that girls should bear the responsibility for stemming unwed births because “men are socialized by the expectations of women.”

“I want little girls from the very first words they hear to be told, ‘If you want the father of your child to have any legal responsibility for your child, you must marry him,”’ he said.

While there may not be a consensus on how to solve the problem, increased attention to the “baneful effects” of single parenthood can be a positive force for change, Ms. Elshtain of Vanderbilt said. The trick, she said, is to “raise the alarm in a way that is not punitive, but generous in spirit.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 1994 edition of Education Week as Impact of Illegitimate Births Stirs Spirited Debate


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