Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Poverty and Unwed Mothers

The problems of the American underclass are primarily cultural. Children of poor, unmarried women, whatever their race, are not likely to acquire the behaviors and thinking that lead to success. They are much more likely to get a poor education, have children of their own at a young age (and probably out of wedlock), and have a difficult time escaping the trap of poverty and welfare. Some progress has been made in getting unwed mothers off welfare and into the workforce, but in the inner city subculture out-of-wedlock birth rates remain staggeringly high.

Kay Hymowitz of the Wall Street Journal has an interesting review of the book, "Promises I Can Keep" by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Edin and Kefalas are sociology professors in the Philadelphia area, and they have spent 5 years interviewing poor women in the area of all races. They have some surprising insights that run counter to the conventional wisdom:
OpinionJournal - Leisure & Arts: "That wisdom had it that unmarried poor women got pregnant either because they were unable to get hold of birth control or ignorant of its use or because they viewed a welfare check as a substitute for an in-house father. Not so, find Ms. Edin and Ms. Kefalas: Young women, even those pregnant as young as 14, simply want to have babies. True, many wish that they had waited. But by and large these young women speak in hidebound terms about the 'joys of motherhood,' as do their young boyfriends, who often whisper "I want to have a baby by you" as part of courtship. Far more than their middle-class counterparts, low-income women are likely to see abortion as wrong and childlessness as a tragedy. It's not a fabulous career or sexual and romantic adventure that endows life with purpose; it's having a baby.

According to the authors, motherhood promises an enduring human connection in a world where trusting relationships are rare, and it gives women a social role whose value is only heightened by their difficult circumstances. In the minds of female ghetto dwellers, 'the choice to have a child despite the obstacles that lie ahead is a compelling demonstration of a young woman's maturity and high moral stature.' Many say that the birth of their child persuaded them to give up drugs or to stop 'running the streets.'
Clearly, although having a baby as a single mother at a young age is clearly a bad choice, it is a choice. It's also not completely irrational for someone stuck in that subculture. While those in the middle class and above clearly recognize the value of connecting childbearing and chlidrearing with marriage, that connection is too often lost in the underclass. The overall deterioration of the institution of marriage in modern society has pushed poor women in the wrong direction. (This has nothing to do with gays. Heterosexuals are doing a fine job of screwing up marriage, thank you.)
"Unlike the old guard of researchers, Ms. Edin and Ms. Kefalas believe that marriage is key to improving the life chances of the inner-city poor. Still, they have not entirely escaped the old trap of over-identifying with their subjects. Poor women aspire toward marriage just as much as middle-class women do, they claim; it's just that poor women value children so highly that they are unwilling to wait for a chimerical Mr. Right.

This is a vain, though commonplace, attempt to soften the ghetto's destructive decoupling of marriage and childrearing. In opinion polls, the authors observe, higher-income women share their poorer sisters' attitudes toward premarital sex, cohabitation and even out-of-wedlock childbearing. But the truth is that the vast majority of middle-class women--and the same can be said for poor immigrants--arrive at maternity wards with husbands in tow. They know that an orderly domestic life is the stage set for upwardly mobile children and the cue to America to keep its promise."
Read the rest.

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