[Published on Alas, TADA, and on Family Scholars Blog.]
The Heritage Foundation thinks that births to unmarried Black women is a problem that just keeps getting worse:
[The out-of-wedlock birth rate] remained relatively low until the onset of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the early 1960s. Then the black out-of-wedlock birth rate skyrocketed, doubling in little more than a decade from 24.5 percent in 1964 to 50.3 percent in 1976. It continued to rise rapidly, reaching 70.7 percent in 1994. Over the next decade, it declined slightly but then began to rise again, reaching 72.4 percent in 2008.
This is reported in Marriage: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty, by Robert Rector, right under a gigantic graph labeled “Growth of Unwed Childbearing by Race.”
To be fair to Heritage, a similar statistic is given in The State of Our Unions 2009 (see pages 99, 102-103 – pdf link), published by IAV and edited by Bradford Wilcox and FSB’s own Elizabeth Marquardt. And, in fact, this is what pretty much everyone reports (and what I therefore used to believe). “The rates increased for all races, but they remained highest and rose fastest for Hispanics and blacks,” reports The Washington Post. Another article bears the headline “Babies Increasingly Born to Unwed Mothers.”
The picture painted by this statistic is clear: More and more black babies are born to single mothers, every year. That picture is completely false, and paints an unfairly negative picture of black family trends.
The “black out-of-wedlock birth rate” is calculated by asking what percentage of all black babies born, are born to an unmarried mother. (“Unmarried” mother is a bit of a tricky statistic, since it would include some women who are living with their child’s father, but aren’t married; and also some lesbian couples. However, imperfect as the statistical definition is, it’s what we have available to use.)
This number has indeed been “skyrocketing,” as Mr. Rector put it, for decades — because the birth rate among married black women has been dropping, not because the birth rate among unmarried black women has gone up. In fact, the birthrate among unmarried black women has been dropping – just not dropping as fast as the birthrate among married black women. As Ta-Nahisi Coates reports:
The basic conclusion is that the birth rate for unmarried black women is–and has been–declining. In 1970 the birth rate for unmarried black women was 96 per 1,000. In 1980, it was 87.9. In 2005 it was 60.6. There is a huge spike in the late 1980s, but the overall trend is clear–the birth rate for unmarried black women has been declining for almost 40 years.
I believe that on average, it’s better for children of any race to be born and raised in two-parent homes (or perhaps more than two). Parenting is hard, supporting a household is hard, and for one person to do the entire thing herself is frequently too much. The fewer one-parent homes we have, the better off our culture is. (This isn’t to deny that some particular households aren’t better off as single-parent households.)
If that’s true, then this graph shows really good news about trends in black families:
But that’s not the graph we see in reports and news articles. Why not?
Every time a new report or article using the “black out-of-wedlock birth rate” gives the false impression that birth rates for unmarried black women are rising, the wrong questions are asked. Instead of asking “what’s going right in black culture, and how can we make sure this trend continues,” we’re assuming that nothing goes right, nothing works, and everything that anyone’s tried has been a failure.
So why have birth rates been declining among black women? I don’t know think there’s any single cause, but I suspect this is one factor:
From 1967 to the present, black girls who graduate high school have been more and more likely to go on to college, except for a period in the 1980s when the odds of college attendance flatlined for a while.
People in general make decisions rationally (although imperfectly). One of the best ways to predict if a young, unmarried woman is going to become a mother, is to ask how attractive her alternatives to motherhood are. What would she give up by having a baby? For women who aren’t giving up much, early single motherhood can be the rational choice.
So the declining birth rate among single black women is good news in two ways. First of all, it means fewer children are being born into households where only one parent will be there to take care of them. And second of all, it may reflect that black girls and women generally have more opportunities today than in the past.