Sawhill, Isabel V. Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2014.

In Generation Unbound, Isabel 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. She further notes that about three-quarters of those children will not be raised in a stable single-parent family. Instead, such children will experience “the constant comings and goings of new boyfriends (or girlfriends) or the addition of new half-siblings…”

The households that Sawhill describes are often a hideously unstable way for children to grow up. This is especially so when one considers the abuse that temporary adult partners sometimes bring into a child’s home and the fighting and depression that often precede and accompany the breakups of adult romantic relationships.‎ Such children also experience poverty much more frequently than children growing up in more stable environments. Sawhill states that forty-seven percent of children living in single-mother families were living below the poverty line in 2012. This is more than four times as high as the eleven percent poverty rate that she describes for children living with their married parents. [1]‎

‎Sawhill then observes that many children of single parents are the result of unintended pregnancies.‎ She states:

“The key fact to understand about pregnancies and births to unmarried women in their twenties is that a large portion of them are not intended. Roughly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended. That is surprising enough; but among single women under 30, seven out of ten pregnancies are unintended. Many of these pregnancies are aborted [which  Sawhill describes is a difficult choice for almost anyone and morally wrong in the eyes of many] but just under half  of such pregnancies are carried to term.”[2]

Finally, Sawhill sets forth a simple, common-sense way to meaningfully address these issues. She advocates for “childbearing by design, not by default. Put simply, it means preventing unplanned pregnancies and births.”

Sawhill states, ” [A] common response was ‘I just wasn’t thinking’ [when people are asked about an unplanned pregnancy]. This is an argument formaking LARC’s–long-acting, reversible forms of contraception–more widely available. LARC’s include intrauterine devices (IUD’s) and implants. They change the default from getting pregnant (if you do little or nothing to prevent it) to not getting pregnant until you take deliberate steps to do so.” Furthermore, argues Sawhill, “The beauty of LARCs is that they do not depend on someone making a rational decision in an irrational state. They do not require remembering to take a pill ‎or to get a prescription refilled…As a result, LARC’S have been found, in practice, to be about forty times more effective than condoms and twenty times more effective than the pill at reducing the incidence of unplanned pregnancies.” [emphasis mine‎]

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1.     The Problem

In 1950, says Sawhill, seven percent of all families with children under age eighteen were headed by a single parent. That is, it used to be that most children, whether rich or poor, grew up in two-parent households.‎ By 2013, the percentage of children in families headed by a single parent had more than quadrupled, rising to approximately one-third of all families.‎ [3]

In 2012, Sawhill reports that twenty-eight percent of families with children were headed by a single mom and a much smaller but growing number by a single dad. “Almost 60 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree are having children outside of marriage. The women in this group overwhelmingly say they did not want to have a child, at least not at this stage‎ of their life… A surprisingly large number of these women are also having children with more than one partner. The upshot is a degree ‎of household churning and family instability that is not good for children.” [4]

According to Sawhill, divorce is no longer the main driver of single parenthood– unwed childbearing is. Sawhill states, “We used to think unwed childbearing was concentrated among low-income minority families living in the inner city… But unwed childbearing has now crept up the socioeconomic scale and is a widespread pattern that includes all racial groups–in fact, just about everyone except the college-educated elites.” (Sawhill’s figures do, however, reflect large differences based on class and race, with the proportion of fami‎lies headed by a single parent varying from twenty-seven percent for whites, to thirty-four percent for Hispanics, to sixty-two percent for African Americans.) And on average, children from single-parent families do worse in school and in life. These parents are four times more likely to be poor than those with married parents.‎ [5]‎

Sawhill’s research suggests that children of college-educated elites are still mostly raised in two parent households. But, for the other two-thirds of American children, this is no longer the case. Accordingly, not only is there a widening income gap between the wealthier and the rest of America, there is also a family structure gap too. This “double whammy” is likely to reduce social mobility and produce a more permanently divided society in the United States.

Sawhill states that at the non-affluent end of the economic spectrum in the United States, families are actually falling apart.

Why are people increasingly having children outside of marriage? While there has been a shift toward more liberal attitudes about premarital sex, those attitudes shifted long before the last couple of decades during which such changes in family formation mostly occurred. Sawhill cites evidence that young adults no longer think of childbearing and marriage as inherently connected, but rather as two separate life events.

Sawhill asks if the needs of children can be reconciled with the new freedoms adults enjoy. I would go further and say that government policy should be both to foster the life prospects of all of America’s children, regardless of the situation of their birth and upbringing, and to punish more effectively adults who bring children into the world then don’t adhere to basic modern standards for taking care of them (such as by denying such adults some government benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled).‎ Nonetheless, as Sawhill points out, there are also many positive things that society can be do to support children who are brought up in such circumstances.

2.     What To Do?

Sawhill believes that 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 is not optimistic that either conservative or progressive approaches will restabilize families in ways that will improve children’s well-being. She advocates instead for changing the default from childbearing by chance to childbearing by design by ensuring access to LARC’s. Sawhill states “Empowering people to have children only when they themselves say they want them, and feel prepared to be parents, would do more than any current social program to reduce poverty and improve the life prospects of children.”

‎Sawhill believes that government has a role to play but that, without more personal responsibility, it will be impossible to turn the tide. “For every child kept out of poverty by the earned income tax credit or some other program, another child is about to be born into poverty because of the wholesale breakdown of the American family.” She states, “To keep pace with this demographic trend, the safety net would have to expand continuously. 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.”‎  [6] [7] Importantly, Sawhill applauds  the work of the National Marriage Project (on whose advisory board she served), which advocates for tripling the child care credit. (The 2017 Republican tax legislation increases the credit, but by way less than she, or Senator Marco Rubio, suggest. Herein lies an opportunity for the kind of pragmatic, consensus building that should be central to a Liberal Republican platform.)

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.” [Emphasis mine] These do not seem to be unachievable goals; in fact, they are remarkably straightforward and politically uncontroversial.

3.     Childbearing by Design: Preventing Unplanned Pregnancies

Sawhill states that if all women in America were able to reduce their unintended pregnancies to the rate experienced by college-educated women, the proportion of children born outside of marriage would drop by twenty-five percent. [8]  She advocates for social marketing campaigns to promote the use of LARC’s, and describes a variety of successful social marketing campaigns, from national campaigns to reduce teenage pregnancy to successful campaigns utterly unrelated to reducing unwanted pregnancies, such as reducing trash tossed out of car and truck windows in Texas. [9]

‎Sawhill notes, “Today, birth control is almost universally supported by the general public. Nine out of ten Americans think that birth control is morally acceptable…[9] Given such widespread support, you might think that birth control would no longer be controversial. But you would be wrong. In the Affordable care Act…there is a provision requiring insurance providers to cover preventive care, including birth control, without co-payment by the insured person [with exemptions for churches and some parochial schools]…[M]any for-profit corporations with religious owners sought redress in the courts, arguing that this requirement violated their religious rights under the First Amendment.” The result was the U.S. Supreme Court Hobby Lobby case, which, siding with the religious objectors, held that such employers did not have to provide coverage to their employees for birth control, including IUD’s.

According to Sawhill, most women in poor and minority communities say they do not want to become pregnant as frequently as they now do, so reducing the number of thier pregnancies is not a matter of family planning advocates trying to reduce childbearing among the poor and minorities against their wishes. Sawhill states that poorer women do, however, disproportionately believe that if one becomes pregnant “doing the right thing” means not aborting the fetus.

Sawhill states, “[T]he proportion of women who get pregnant unintentionally over the course of a year when using ‎a particular type of contraception varies from 18 percent among condom users to 9 percent among pill users to much less than one percent among users of long-acting reversible methods such as the IUD or an implant.” But Sawhill stresses that there is a lack of knowledge about different forms of birth control and their effectiveness. Sawhill further observes that with limited government funding for contraceptive services, clinics do not always offer the more expensive upfront methods of birth control, such as LARC’s, even though they are more effective and less expensive in the long run. She also notes that LARCs take a higher-trained medical professional to provide.

Sawhill states that “‎The problem is not [young parents’] lack of desire to do well by their children; the problem is a failure to turn that aspiration into a reality…Struggling with poverty makes life harder not only because you have fewer material resources, but also because you have less cognitive bandwidth for dealing with everything from parenting to remembering to take your medications…[This is] one possible explanation for why low-income individuals seem to have a harder time matching their actions to their intentions.”

According to Sawhill, a majority of new mothers under age thirty are not married to the fathers of their children. In addition, those unmarried parents are unlikely to marry or stay together for very long. About four in ten parents who are cohabitating when a child is born will have ended their relationship by the time the child is five. “Social norms that used to stigmatize unwed parenting now need to stigmatize unplanned parenting. “In the discussions of all of this, Sawhill says, “we should keep in mind that it is often the children who are the ‘victims’.”


1 Sawhill states, “If we could return marriage rates to their 1970 level, the child poverty rate would be about 20 percent lower. Inequality would be reduced as well.” But Sawhill points out ‎”[C]ultural trends ,once they gain a certain momentum, are hard to reverse…Government has limited tools with which to restore marriage as the primary institution for raising children. If marriage is to be revived, it will only be because civic and religious institutions are successful in encouraging more young people to marry before having children or because young people themselves see its value and act on these aspirations.”

2 Not only are the majority of births to unmarried women under thirty unplanned, but they are “too frequently accompanied by a less-than-favorable environment for the child. According to Sawhill, “Marriage provided not just a secure environment for children; it meant that the resources of two adults–their time, their money, their emotional support–were potentially available to the child…Millions of families have achieved middle-class status by sending a second earner into the labor force…Both married and cohabiting parents [also] benefit from what economists call ‘economies of scale’ in maintaining a household. They pay only one rent, can make do with one TV, and require fewer of the many other things needed to maintain two separate households. Even more important, they can combine their individual earnings to provide a far higher income for the household than either could provide alone.” (This includes saved child care costs if one parent stays home or works part-time.)  She also says that children in single-parent homes suffer from cognitive, social and emotional deficits relative to children raised in two-parent homes.‎ According to Sawhill, such children are also at greater risk of parental abuse and neglect (especially from live-in boyfriends who are not their biological fathers). Changes in the household generate stress and contribute to poorer mental health for the custodial parent which, Sawhill observes, produces harsher parenting and generally decreases the time the custodial parent can devote to learning activities in the home, and leads to the custodial parent just having less time to spend with the children generally.

3 Sawhill states, “[I]n 1960, 76 percent of adults with a college degree and 72 percent of those with a high school diploma were married–‎a gap of only 4 percentage points. By 2008, not only was marriage less likely, but the gap had quadrupled, to 16 percentage points, with 64 percent of adults with college degrees getting married and only 48 percent of adults with a high school diploma.”

‎4 Of children born to unmarried parents, by the time the children reach age five, Sawhill states that only one-third of these unmarried couples were still together, in contrast to eighty percent of their married counterparts. “Most of these mothers went on to form new relationships and to have children with other men, sometimes with a series of different men. The fathers did the same with other women. By the time their children were age 5, almost half of these mothers had split with the children’s fathers and gone on to have another baby with a different man.” Others had new live-in boyfriends. ” More than three-quarters (78 percent) of all the children initially born to unmarried parents experienced a major change in their household by the time they were age 5. [R]oughly one-third of all babies born in America are experiencing the “family-go-around.” Sawhill states “One cannot help worrying about the impacts on the next generation, the children who are growing up without knowing any kind of stable family life. Will they be able to form stable relationships themselves when they have not experienced stability in their own lives?”

5 In 2012, the median income for married-parent families was $81,520. The typical single female parent earned only $29,539.‎ Forty-three percent of all single-mother families fall below the poverty line, which was about $19,530 for a family of three in 2013.  Too often the unmarried fathers of these children  are unemployed or incarcerated and, even if they have jobs, their inflation-adjusted earnings have declined over the past few decades. But Sawhill believes that the changing status of women is the most important driver of changes in the family; that is, changing attitudes and expectations about gender roles. She states that men’s real wages, even at the bottom of the skill ladder, have not changed enough over the past thirty years to be the primary cause of the negative changes that have affected family structures during that time.

6 Sawhill observes, “Single mothers rely on support from a variety of sources, including their own earnings, public benefits, child support from the father, and help from relatives and friends. Public benefits loom large… These benefits include welfare [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families , or TANF]; food stamps (now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, [or] SNAP)‎; the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program; school lunch subsidies; the earned income tax credit (EITC); and housing assistance. Sawhill states that public benefits also include medical assistance (Medicaid, which is the biggest government expenditure for single mothers and their children); special education; child care subsidies; Head Start; and child welfare services. She states that statistics show that, “In 2001, one year after the birth of a child, 94 percent of single and cohabiting mothers were at least partially dependent on public benefits.” Sawhill states, “In sum, too many young families with children are dependent on the rest of society to help make ends meet. If this were a small group, such dependence might not be a problem. But if such families continue to grow in numbers and become the majority, other families may rebel against the level of taxation needed to support them along with a growing number of elderly Americans.”

7 Sawhill reports that recent years have seen stepped-up efforts to establish and collect child support from absent fathers. Such collections are nonetheless still modest. Between 1995 and 2012‎, child support collections more than doubled from $12 billion per year to $32 billion per year, almost certainly due to provisions in the 1996 federal welfare reform law. Even considering such changes in the law and the collection increases from 1995 to 2012, the situation remains dismal. In 2011, only thirty-five percent of all single mothers received any child support and, among single mothers living in poverty, only twenty-nine percent did. Even among mothers who receive payments, the average payment is around $4500 per year. Reducing incarceration should help if efforts are made in this regard. Interestingly, according to Sawhill child support enforcement has reduced the incidence of unwed births.

8 According to Sawhill, in 1970, 12.8 percent of families were headed by a single mother. If there had been no growth in single-parent families after 1970, the child poverty rate would be only 15 percent, six percentage points lower than the actual child property rate in 2012 of 21 percent.

9 The teen birth rate has declined by over fifty percent since 1991. By 2012, the teen birth rate had reached the lowest level reported in over six decades. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which Isabel Sawhill helped to found and on whose board she serves as President, played a very significant role in reducing teen pregnancy, including through social marketing campaigns.  See www.thenationalcampaign.orgSee also Texas’ anti-littering campaign, “Don’t Mess With Texas” which resulted in a seventy-two percent reduction in highway littering.


10 In contrast, according to Sawhill in 2013 forty-nine percent of Americans believed that abortion was morally wrong. Sawhill points out that “Close to half of [unplanned] pregnancies will be terminated by abortion, which is a difficult choice for almost anyone and morally wrong in the eyes of many.‎” Conflating contraception and abortion is problematic for many reasons, including because contraception dramatically reduces the demand for abortion. According to Sawhill, “Publicly funded contraceptive services avert an estimated 2.2 million unintended pregnancies a year and prevent about 760,000 abortions.”