The world was an imperfect place in the 1950s, but fewer than one in 20 children were born to unmarried mothers. While the 1950s were a time when women and minorities were especially disadvantaged, the much-welcomed gains of civil rights were accompanied by a startling collapse of family conditions, which in turn erased many of the gains in individual freedom.
A half-century ago, a smaller share of black children were born to unmarried mothers than those that were born to unwed whites, but for both groups the numbers were small, under 5 percent. Today, six in 10 black children and four in 10 white children are born to incomplete families. The absence of a parent and the financial hardship of these families are devastating to our nation's fiscal, economic and social health.
The economic outcomes for children of single moms are dismal. Virtually all long-term poverty, most welfare payments, most Medicaid and other forms of social assistance go to such families. So, too, higher costs of schooling and incarceration. Indeed, if we could erase the costs of unwed parenting, our budget would instantly run a dramatic surplus.
By my reckoning we'd save just under $1 trillion in federal spending per year and probably another $1 trillion in state spending. It is a bigger annual cost than any other budget outlay, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, these children fail in school and in life at rates far higher than their peers, perpetuating the problems.
There are several, and sometimes competing, explanations why children of unwed moms do so poorly in life. I suspect the complexity of the issue argues against any one cause. Suffice it to say, the effects have undone the many gains of the civil rights period. The newfound opportunities for women cannot be realized by those who bear children without partners.
For black households, the challenge is deeper. The disadvantaged conditions most black children face today can no longer be honestly attributed to centuries of racism. Black families were stronger a generation ago than now. Today the culprit is poor parenting decisions.
The debate we should be having would confront the challenge of restoring the power of the family in our national life while preserving individual freedom and opportunity. We mustn't go back to a time when women and minorities were less equal citizens, but we will not go forward until we can, to some degree, restore families to a central place.
So, the debate over same-sex marriage robs from us a wider, more critical discourse about the far more pressing social and economic problem of families today.