Generation Unbound and The Decline of the American Two-Parent Family

“Roughly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended.” (Generation Unbound, Isabel Sawhill)

This week’s post describes a straightforward Liberal Republican poverty reduction platform. It is centered on what Isabel Sawhill, one of America’s leading social welfare economists, calls “having children by design, not by default” (that is, by accident).

In her book Generation Unbound, Sawhill sets forth some sad facts regarding the decline of the American two-parent family and its often-devastating effects on children. She explains that over forty percent of all children in America are now born outside of marriage, in contrast to as recently as 1950, when almost all children in America, whether rich or poor, grew up in two-parent households.

These single-parent families, which Sawhill describes as ‘merry-go-round households,’ can be particularly unstable, as children will experience “the constant comings and goings of new boyfriends (or girlfriends) or the addition of new half-siblings.” Such children also experience poverty much more frequently than children growing up in more stable environments. Sawhill states that 47% of children living in single-mother families were living below the poverty line in 2012.

According to Sawhill, political conservatives have generally avoided the issue of how to deal with so many single parent families because they believe separating sex from childbearing and marriage is morally wrong or undermines responsible behavior. Sawhill states that political progressives also have avoided this issue because they are overwhelmingly focused on what happens to children once they are born, “ignoring the fact that the circumstances of a child’s birth matter, too.”

Sawhill believes that government has a role to play but that, without more personal responsibility, it will be impossible to turn the tide. To reduce poverty we must slow down entries into poverty, not just speed up the exits.” Sawhill states, “[Progressives] are asking voters to support an agenda that is more expensive and less consistent with the American value of self-sufficiency than ‎most American voters will accept.”‎

Sawhill explains the relative ease of avoiding poverty in America. She states that she has long argued that “To stay out of poverty, individuals need to follow three steps: graduate from high school, work full-time, and wait until after age 21 to get married and have children (in that order)…[I]f people followed these three simple guidelines, only 2 percent would be poor.”

These do not seem to be unachievable goals; in fact, while achieving them would not be easy, they are remarkably straightforward and politically uncontroversial.

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