Anyone wishing to understand inequality in contemporary America should consult the latest data on nonmarital births, as compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). “Childbearing by unmarried women has resumed a steep climb since 2002,” the NCHS reports. Between 2002 and 2007, the birth rate among unmarried women increased by 21 percent; since 1980, it has increased by 80 percent. In 2007, almost 40 percent of all births in the United States were to unmarried women. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks was just under 72 percent, while the rate among non-Hispanic whites was nearly 28 percent.
The recent trend among Hispanics is especially alarming, when we consider that their share of the U.S. population will grow significantly over the coming decades. Between 2002 and 2006, the birth rate among unmarried Hispanic women jumped by 20 percent. In 2007, more than 51 percent of all Hispanic births were out of wedlock. Republican advocates of open immigration frequently tell us that Latinos are a “natural constituency” of the GOP, given their religious faith and conservative values. But the NCHS figures suggest that they are increasingly adopting the worst cultural habits of the American underclass. This is retarding their assimilation, hindering their upward mobility, and exacerbating a bevy of social problems, such as gang activity.
Nonmarital births are concentrated primarily in the bottom half of the income scale. After conducting preliminary research on birth data and class status, AEI scholar Charles Murray reckons that the out-of-wedlock birth rate among the white underclass “is probably now in the region of 70 percent,” while “the proportion for the white working class may be above 40 percent. The white middle class is approaching 20 percent — a scarily high figure when you think about all the ways that the middle class has been the spine of the nation.” By contrast, at the top of the income ladder — among the “white overclass” — Murray estimates that the out-of-wedlock birth rate “is probably about 4 or 5 percent, tops.”
If these trends continue, American society could become alarmingly polarized. But how to reverse them? We are reminded of the late Pat Moynihan’s famous remark: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Of course, politics can also have deeply harmful effects on a culture, which is what happened with the Great Society and the urban poor.
We believe that any sea change in cultural practices must be driven by America’s elites — the same elites who have done so much to pollute the culture while remaining insulated from the consequences. Yet such a change won’t happen quickly, if it happens at all. In the meantime, we agree with University of Chicago economist James Heckman that programs designed to help disadvantaged children “should respect the primacy of the family.” As Heckman writes, “The family plays a powerful role in shaping adult outcomes that is not fully appreciated by current American policies.”
During the Bush years, liberals often attributed rising inequality to Republican economic measures. In fact, the growth of inequality since the early 1980s can be explained by structural changes in both the U.S. economy and American society. The most important social shift has been the deterioration of middle- and lower-income families. Over the long term, strengthening those families is the best way to reduce inequality.