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How out-of-wedlock birth became typical

Super-intern Jordan Roberts and I have spent the last month understanding TANF in North Carolina. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program was the creation of welfare reform 20 years ago. It replaced the much-maligned Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with a federal block grant to complement state funds. TANF’s goals are to get families off welfare, keep children in their homes, promote two-parent families, and reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In its early years, a number of mothers did escape poverty and have held onto their gains.

Out-of-wedlock pregnancies and births have not been as amenable to change, so much that 57 percent of births to men and women aged 26 to 31 in 2011 were out-of-wedlock births. Digging further, it turns out Fed Chairman Janet Yellen co-wrote a paper with George Akerlof in 1996 (before TANF) looking at the rise in out-of-wedlock births. They concluded that technological changes were the main contributor and that welfare increases played a role for very poor women.

Yellen and Akerlof concluded that the increased availability of birth control pills and abortion changed the calculus of love and marriage.

What links liberalized contraception and abortion with the declining shotgun marriage rate? Before 1970, the stigma of unwed motherhood was so great that few women were willing to bear children outside of marriage. The only circumstance that would cause women to engage in sexual activity was a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy. Men were willing to make (and keep) that promise for they knew that in leaving one woman they would be unlikely to find another who would not make the same demand. Even women who would be willing to bear children out-of-wedlock could demand a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy.

The increased availability of contraception and abortion made shotgun weddings a thing of the past. Women who were willing to get an abortion or who reliably used contraception no longer found it necessary to condition sexual relations on a promise of marriage in the event of pregnancy. But women who wanted children, who did not want an abortion for moral or religious reasons, or who were unreliable in their use of contraception found themselves pressured to participate in premarital sexual relations without being able to exact a promise of marriage in case of pregnancy. These women feared, correctly, that if they refused sexual relations, they would risk losing their partners. Sexual activity without commitment was increasingly expected in premarital relationships.

Men became less willing to support women and their children because they saw having a child as the woman’s choice over which they had no control. Women also became more likely to keep their children and not put them up for adoption.

Joseph Coletti / Senior Fellow

Joe Coletti is a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation focused on fiscal policy issues. He previously headed the North Carolina Government Efficiency and Reform initiativ...

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