Planning to Fail

Generation Unbound – Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage

  • Isabel V. Sawhill
  • Brookings Institution Press, 2014; 212 pages, $32.00

For those concerned about family policy, the stark facts that Generation Unbound describes will be familiar. While teen parenting is down, for instance, “parenting by young unwed women has not declined. It has just moved up the age scale.” While men marry six years later than they did in 1960 and women marry seven years later, this development “has not been accompanied by delayed childbearing.” Young people consider marriage and childbearing to be “two separate life events” and “individual choices rather than social imperatives.”

Today, “One-third of all children live in single-parent homes. If there is one statistic that sums it all up, it is that among women under 30, more than half of all babies are born outside marriage.” This statistic does not bode well for children: As has been documented for decades, divorce, single-parenthood, step-parent families, and cohabitation are all associated with poorer outcomes for children.

Take poverty, for example. Sawhill notes that “the growth of single-parent families has pushed up the child poverty rate a lot . . . the official poverty rate has remained stubbornly high because of the decline in marriage.” Thus, “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 11 percent poverty rate for children living with their married parents.”

These challenging realities are now familiar because of the important work that Dr. Sawhill and others have done to bring them to our attention. In Generation Unbound, though, Sawhill does more than describe family unraveling. She makes the case for a novel solution, based on a simple equation: later marriage plus a decline in marriage plus unwed childbearing equals child poverty.

The first variable, she believes, is definitely a good thing. The next, marriage decline, is probably bad, but Sawhill writes, “I no longer think it is possible to put the marriage genie back in the bottle.” Unwed childbearing is probably fine if chosen by an educated, professional woman but definitely not if unplanned and probably not if chosen by a poor, uneducated woman. 

Dr. Sawhill sees two competing possibilities currently being promoted. The first, from the “village builders,” suggests “supporting the growing number of single parents with a more adequate safety net and work-related benefits such as child care and paid leave.” Whatever its merits, this suggestion is infeasible, because it lacks enough public support for taxpayers to take on the significant costs it would require. Right now, the total cost to government of benefits paid to single-parent families is about $107 billion. Add to this the reality that our nation will soon need to support “a growing number of elderly Americans.”

The other popular prescription is from the “traditionalists” who, in Sawhill’s view, prescribe a “role for government in restoring the traditional family by funding marriage education programs, creating a more family-friendly tax and welfare system, or improving the economic prospects of less-skilled men.” This solution is also infeasible, because of social changes. Probably, too, a really robust marriage culture might threaten more important values like a focus on education and career and the attendant “goods” of an enlightened hedonism. As Sawhill puts it, “The good news is that, for some women and men, casual sex seems to be part and parcel of giving higher priority to one’s education and career.” 

So if we cannot, or perhaps do not want to, do much about the decline in marriage or the rise in (unchosen) unwed childbearing, what part of the equation can we influence? Now we get to the crux of the book’s prescription, a solution with a relentless logic: we can end child poverty by ending children. More precisely, the argument is for far fewer children born, and then only to educated professionals. Sawhill argues, “If the first stage of the revolution in living arrangements was all about delinking sex from marriage, the next stage needs to be about delinking sex from childbearing.”

The obstacle to the success of this proposal is that right now the wealthier and better educated are typically “planners,” but the poor and less educated are “drifters,” who enter childbearing with little or no forethought. “How can we help the drifters become planners?” asks Sawhill. “The answer is by changing the default.”

Now Dr. Sawhill thinks we cannot, and probably do not want to, change the default to marriage before childbearing. (Though marriage has historically done a great job at providing the “pre-commitment” she would like adults to have before childbearing, as she recognizes: “In the world of relationships, marriage is, of course, the ultimate commitment device.”) So what do we do? Dr. Sawhill proposes we change “the default from childbearing by chance to childbearing by design.” She reiterates often that this will benefit children (at least the children who are still born): “If children were wanted and planned for, they would be better off.” She even claims, without any authority, that “The advantages of being wanted may even outstrip the advantages of being born to a married couple.”

This is possible, Sawhill explains, through the wonders of technology, specifically the availability of long-acting, reversible contraceptives (LARCs), which make a woman “virtually infertile until such time as she explicitly chose to become a mother. . . . New low-maintenance and long-acting forms of birth control make changing the default possible. (Imagine being able to eat all the chocolate ice cream you want without gaining weight.)”

People have to choose to use such contraceptives, however, and the proposal is for a “soft paternalism” two-child policy, not a forced one-child policy. Thus, there will need to be significant nudges, some softer than others. For instance, Sawhill proposes that we: 

  • “make sure that private health plans are providing all forms of birth control . . . without a co-pay”;
  • “encourage more states to expand Medicaid coverage of family planning services to a broader group of low-income individuals”;
  • “use the power of the media . . . to educate the young and change social norms”;
  • require “information and counseling about how to prevent an unintended pregnancy, a full spectrum of birth control and abstinence options, and help with securing family planning services” to all entering high school and college;
  • train doctors in LARCs and have HHS fund the training in professional organizations and medical schools;
  • promote a public dialogue about the benefits of birth control.

The crying need is for changes in attitudes (“women need to be freed from the expectation that they will be parents”), and this transition will be possible because “[t]he mutual interaction between behavior and attitudes can cause a social trend that starts to slowly gain momentum as behavior feeds back on attitudes, propelling further changes in behavior.” The good news for this approach is that “[r]educing fertility . . . is going with the tide.”

Marriage will also need to be hollowed out. Dr. Sawhill suggests same-sex couples “may show the way to a better future” because they will never have unplanned pregnancies. More single people will “want to be parents and decide to have or raise a child on their own.” We could, she suggests, allow for marriages that are not sexually exclusive or where the spouses do not live together or marriages that are term-limited, or are intentionally child-free “with an emphasis on travel and adventure.”

What about those who will object? They do need to be dealt with. Sawhill candidly explains that “taking religious scruples about sex or contraception out of the public square has to be one of the goals.” She even cites with approval a ludicrous New England Journal of Medicine editorial claim that allowing religious employers to opt-out of paying for contraception “would be equivalent of denying [] a blood transfusion, vaccination or chemotherapy.” 

The non-compliant will face consequences as well: 

“I think it is only fair to expect parents to limit the number of children they have to something they can afford. . . . If an adult wants a large family, that should be a decision he or she is permitted to make, but not at public expense. . . . I would add that if you have a modestly sized family—say, no more than the current average of two children—you should not be poor. If you decide to have more children, perhaps you should be on your own financially. Your children would still be entitled to health care and a good education but not to additional income assistance.”

The problems with all these arguments abound. In spite of Sawhill’s cheery comparison, nutritionists would probably balk at the idea that allowing a person to eat all the ice cream he or she wants without gaining weight is a good thing. The indulgence is likely to have other consequences even if that particular one is somehow avoided. Similarly, removing children, child-centered marriages, and child-rich families from the human ecosystem is likely to have consequences beyond the promise of a decrease in child poverty. Children provide powerful meaning to life. They enrich not only the lives of their parents but of their siblings, other relatives, neighbors, and many, many others. They grow up to do mundane and noble things that need doing.

Dr. Sawhill’s approach boasts purported benefits to children. They deserve, so goes her argument, “to be born to adults who are ready to be parents and fully aware of the responsibilities involved.” But this argument is merely adult preference (“ready”) masked as deference to children. What parents are ever “fully aware” of what they will be responsible for? Each child is different, and the responsibilities will always be different.

Why put so much emphasis on certain forms of accomplishment to the exclusion of others? Some people want to be mothers and fathers and would prefer doing so to the measurable accomplishments of education and professional success. But what happens when those latter values are the only ones we recognize as meaningful? What does that mean for the one or two children born to a couple for whom those children were second-place to a career or the chance for the parents to pursue travel and adventure? What about children who cannot deliver what the parents want out of their choice? What about children with disabilities or who have non-academic interests? Children can add fulfillment to life, but they are not for our fulfillment. In fact, viewing them that way may destroy the benefit.

And what about children’s choices? They may want siblings or a mom and a dad or not to be a trophy for a parent or parents. They may want to accompany mom and dad on their adventures.

Additionally, it is fine to say that children are great but only when they’re wanted, but the reality is that wanting children will not bring them into existence. It seems unlikely that after long periods of “virtual sterilization” women will always be able to have babies on cue. Or perhaps the education or career accomplishment of the parents takes longer than expected or longer for one parent than the other. 

Of course, there are always sperm donation and surrogacy, but why should a child’s ability to have a relationship with his mother or father be denied to facilitate one parent’s timeline? Why should children and some biological parents be turned into commodities?

And sterilizing yourself to be able to have “casual” sexual relationships will not prevent heartbreak, foreclosed options, diseases, and other consequences. 

We also lose some pretty tangible benefits when we lose children. Decreasing the population may sound good to some in an increasingly child-averse culture, but an aging population will need support, and nonexistent children are not good providers. Dr. Sawhill’s answer to this question is immigration (at least it’s not robots). But just as socialism founders when we run out of other people’s money, if everyone opts for ending poverty by preventing births, we will run out of people to provide geriatric care.

It is notable that all the solutions discussed in the book focus on government action. Giving up on marriage because government is not that effective at promoting it is myopic. Indeed, the very institutions that the book would muzzle because of their views about sexual morality are the most effective marriage promoters. Maybe it would be better to focus on how government can stop doing things that impede such work by churches and other mediating institutions.

It may be that married parenting is becoming rarer not because of a lack of knowledge or access to birth control but because the formative virtues of courage, unselfishness, and sacrifice so connected to the pattern of marrying and having children as a cornerstone of adult life are themselves rarer and because those who still prize them are increasingly stigmatized. 

The basic message of the book seems to be: The problem with the family is individualism, and the answer is more and better individualism.

To be a successful parent requires an adult to accept obligations towards others, the other parent and the children, that cannot really be “chosen” but that, if taken seriously, enrich life as few other opportunities could ever do. Anne Campbell’s poem “To My Child” beautifully describes this reality: 

You are the trip I did not take;

You are the pearls I cannot buy;

You are my blue Italian lake;

You are my piece of foreign sky. 

A successful culture of marriage and family will not suppress this reality but seek ways to foster the character traits that sustain it. It will value choices, of course, but not at the expense of what we owe our children.

William C. Duncan is the Director of the Marriage Law Foundation.