People often assume that because I’m concerned about healthy marriage, I’m focused on reducing the divorce rate, which continues to hover around 50%. It’s not that I’m unconcerned about unnecessary divorce. I still contend that far too many marriages end when they might have been salvaged with the right kind of help, but a focus on the “divorce rate” is not all that helpful. For one thing, it’s difficult to really know what the divorce rate is in the U.S. today given that some states (e.g., California) no longer collect this data. Additionally, an increasing number of young adults are living together before marrying. If they break up after two or three years of cohabitation, do we consider that “premarital divorce”? While these are important concerns, what alarms me more is the out of wedlock birth rate.
When we began our emphasis on healthy marriage and healthy relationships in 2002, the out of wedlock birth rate for all babies born in the U.S. was around 39%. Today it is 41%; in the African American community it is 70%. Moreover, a look at the census figures for our region over the last 20 years reveals a declining number of married households in all but two out of 29 counties in southwest Missouri with a corresponding increase in the number of single parent and unmarried households. The out of wedlock birth rate is a concern because of its relationship to all kinds of risk factors for children, including poverty, abuse and neglect. I’m afraid people will be so focused on the divorce rate (a statistic that’s very difficult to measure) that they’ll overlook the ominous impact of so many children being born to unmarried parents.
A significant role of social services today involves persuading mothers (and fathers) to establish paternity for their child when the mother is not married. Child Support Enforcement is primarily concerned about the financial support required to raise a child, but being a responsible father is more than just paying child support. When fathers are not married to the mothers of their children they are much less likely to be engaged in their child’s life. Contrary to the impression one might form as a result of the media or popular culture, father involvement does matter to child development! In fact, the best outcomes for children occur when both parents are involved with their child, which naturally occurs when they are married to each other.
While some might decry the negative impact of out of wedlock pregnancy, others are doing something about it. Family Expectations in Oklahoma City has been running a program for expectant parents, married or unmarried, for more than 10 years now with some impressive results. Their program, designed to help couples form and maintain a healthy and stable relationship for the benefit of their child, has literally been delivered to thousands of couples. The result? It’s hard to know for certain, but in the county where Oklahoma City is located the out of wedlock birth rate has been going down. Considering that this rate is going up in the rest of the U.S. it is certainly plausible to assert that what they are doing is making a difference.
When we consider the high rates of poverty, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect in our community, it’s hard to know where to start and what to do. The Oklahoma project gives us hope that we can make a dent in the rate of out of wedlock pregnancy, and in so doing improve outcomes for our children. If we want to improve outcomes for children in the Ozarks, we must spend at least some of our time and resources on helping the people bearing those children form and maintain a safe and stable relationship.