The latest report from Pew Research on family life shows that 34 percent of American children are living with an unmarried parent. Back in 1960, the corresponding figure was 9 percent. Almost every year that passes, the proportion of the adult population that is married drops. More than 41 percent of American children are currently born to unmarried women. Most of these children live with single mothers, who have a job, or need one, and have little or no help running their household and taking care of the kids. Many of those mothers get little or no help either in money or in services from their children's fathers. Many of those mothers have jobs with low pay.
This means that a large segment of American children lead deprived and difficult lives, and their numbers are increasing. This is by no means a problem restricted to the minority community. A higher proportion of minority children are in that situation than are white children, but it is a significant and increasing problem among whites as well.
What can be done? Obviously, if fewer unmarried people had children, and if fewer married couples with children got divorced, fewer children would be in that situation. So if people could be induced to "act better", that would improve the situation. Unfortunately, there is nothing that government could do that is likely to reestablish the dominance of the two-parent family and reduce the number of babies born to unmarried women. Nor is a religious revival that would drastically reduce sex outside of marriage likely to occur. The sexual revolution, brought on by the invention of the birth control pill and the decline of religion, is not going to be repealed.
Instead of thinking unrealistically about changing the behavior of adults, we ought to be thinking of ways to help children. Their tough situation is not, after all, their fault. It derives in large part from a reduction in the contribution that men make to the money and services that are used to bring up the next generation. In theory, men are legally obligated to contribute to their children for 18 years even if the birth resulted from a one-night stand, but in practice these payments are difficult to enforce. Many that are owed are not paid. Unless the father is living with his child, his money payments cannot be counted on, and he is unlikely to take much of a part in helping to provide the services a child needs.
What can replace men's contributions? Obviously, government is the only realistic source of the substantial help needed. High on the list of things government should do is free provision of good quality child care. It would be best to give such help to all families with children, not just poor ones, as we already do with primary and secondary education; that would make it more popular and the services provided less likely to be of poor quality. Greatly increased help with college expenses, free health care, subsidized housing, and some cash benefits should also be provided.
Is it realistic to think of such a program, much less advocate for it? We have two parties: the Republicans who think we should have much smaller government expenditure and lower taxes, and the Democrats, most of whom do not appear to be anxious to grow the government. (It was Bill Clinton who said, "The era of big government is over.")
Moreover, opponents would remind us that such a program would make it a lot easier to raise children out of wedlock. It would encourage births to unmarried women. Is that a good reason not to enact it? One might consider it a good reason if only a small proportion of children -- say 5 percent -- were suffering deprivation. Perhaps most voters would be willing to allow them to suffer, in the interest of keeping their numbers down. But the numbers are already much larger -- a considerable proportion of the children born this year to unmarried women are going to suffer. And it looks as though their numbers will only get bigger as the years go on. We are headed toward having a majority of American children, children who have committed no fault, brought up in difficult conditions. Quite apart from humanitarian considerations, what kind of a country would result?
Other countries are facing the same problem and some of them - France and the Scandinavian countries -- have generous benefit programs for children of the type outlined above. To do this, even with much lower defense expenditures than we have, they need taxes that take as much as 45 percent of their national income. Our taxes are on the order of 25 percent. As of now, we are certainly not headed toward hugely increased taxes. But as time goes on, and the problem of single parenthood grows worse, the electorate may come to see the need. We already have programs that assist families with child care, college, housing, health care, but the funds appropriated for them are measly, and do not even cover benefits for all the children eligible to get them. Such programs would need to be far better financed if they are to do the job of keeping vast numbers of guiltless kids from deprivation.