Effects of Out-of-Wedlock Births on Society

1. Intergenerational Effect

The absence of married parents can lead to intergenerational out-of-wedlock births. Even as the child enters adolescence and the influence of peers and community increases, the consequences of being born outside marriage continue to affect the development of many young people and compound the risks confronting them.

Nonmarital births are becoming the accepted way of life, particularly in inner-city poor communities. In 2013, nonmarital births accounted for 41 percent of all U.S. births. Roughly 29 percent of these births were to White women, 53 percent to Hispanic women, and 71 percent to Black women.1) A University of Wisconsin study shows that inner-city young women feel less pressure to marry and have family intentions very different from their middle-class counterparts—black or white. They do not expect to have their own children within marriage, and frequently they deliberately chose single-parent family life for lack of suitable husbands.2)

This growing practice of birth outside of marriage is now widely accepted and is affecting expectations. Nationally, 41 percent of blacks, 29 percent of Hispanics and 23 percent of whites are positively disposed toward the idea of being a single parent.3) The intergenerational trend is unmistakable. Recent research casts some light on these findings: being born outside of marriage significantly reduces the chances of the child growing up to have an intact marriage. Children born to unmarried parents are more likely to have their first child out of wedlock, thereby perpetuating the cycle of rejection.4)

2. Crime

The effects of nonmarital births continue into adolescence and are linked to increased crime rates in a neighborhood. Again the professional literature illustrates the statistical relationship: lack of married parents, rather than race or poverty, is the principal factor in the crime increase.

It has been known for some time that high rates of welfare dependency correlate with high crime rates among young men in a neighborhood.5) But more important, a major study of 11,000 individuals found that “the percentage of single-parent households with children between the ages of 12 and 20 is significantly associated with rates of violent crime and burglary.” The same study makes clear that the widespread popular assumption that there is an association between race and crime is false. Out-of-wedlock births are the key factor. The absence of marriage, and the failure to form and maintain intact families, explains the incidence of high crime in a neighborhood among whites as well as blacks. This study also concluded not only that poverty does not explain the incidence of crime, but also that it actually appears to have a negative effect on crime.6) This is a dramatic reversal of conventional wisdom. Further, University of Illinois sociologist Robert J. Sampson, in a major study on the differential effects of poverty and family disruption on crime, states:

Overall the analysis shows that rates of black violent offending, especially by juveniles, are strongly influenced by variations in family structure. Independent of the major candidates supplied by prior criminological theory (e.g. income, region, size, density, age, and race composition) black family disruptions has the largest effects on black juvenile robbery and homicide…The effects of family structure are strong and cannot be easily dismissed by reference to other structural and cultural features of urban environments…The effect of family disruption on black violence is not due to the effect of black violence on family structure.

Commenting on crime among whites, Sampson concludes: “In fact the predictors of white robbery are in large part identical in sign and magnitude to those for blacks.”7)

Dr. June O’Neill, of Baruch College, City of University of New York, in recent research on underclass behaviors, confirms the linkage between crimes and single-parent families. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, O’Neill found that young black men raised in single-parent families were twice as likely to engage in criminal activities when compared to black men raised in two-parent families, even after holding constant a wide range of variables such as family income, urban residence, neighborhood environment, and parents’ education. Growing up in a single-parent family in a neighborhood with many other single-parent families on welfare triples the probability that a young black man will engage in criminal activity.8)

These academic findings on the relationship between crime and nonmarital births are confirmed in government studies. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice reported in 1987 that 70 percent of juveniles in custody did not live with both parents while growing up, and almost three-quarters of those lived primarily in a single-parent family.9) Similar results were confirmed by the National Center for Juvenile Justice in 2014.10)

Meanwhile, a major sociological review from the University of Wisconsin concludes that teens from single-parent families are much more likely to become delinquent than are teens from intact families. Family disruption drives up delinquency rates because of the way it “hampers the formation of attachments to parents and the transmission of antidelinquent definitions from parent to child.” Adolescents from broken homes often “associate with delinquents learn…definitions favorable to delinquency and consequently, violate the law.”11) Another study revealed that neighborhoods with a high quantity of fatherless families also have an increased number of acts of teen violence. The statistical data showed that “a 1% increase in the proportion of single-parent families in a neighborhood is associated with a 3% increase in an adolescent’s level of violence.”12) Hence, adolescents living in neighborhoods with more intact families are less likely to commit a crime.

3. Welfare

The absence of married parents reinforces the cycle of welfare. The cumulative earlier effects carry over into young adult life. Welfare contributes to the sorry picture. From the professional literature, for instance, it becomes clear that receiving public aid increases the percentage of pregnant teenagers choosing unmarried motherhood.13) Data on the American welfare system, moreover, show a positive relationship between out-of-wedlock births and long-term welfare dependency. Women who give birth outside of marriage are more likely to go on AFDC and spend more years on welfare once enrolled (72 percent of single mothers 17 years of age or younger receive AFDCA). These combined effects of “younger and longer” increase total AFDCA costs per household by 25 percent to 30 percent for 17-year-olds.14)

According to eminent poverty researcher Sara McLanahan, then at the University of Wisconsin and now at Princeton University, family structure is powerful in explaining much of these effects. Though the numbers show that single parenthood in adolescence is associated with daughters’ future dependence, they also show that single parenthood in adolescence is associated with daughters’ future likelihood of being on welfare, even after controlling for family income and size.15)

Not only are out-of-wedlock births linked to future welfare dependency, but welfare dependency is linked to out-of-wedlock births. For instance research by Dr. C.R. Winegarden of the University of Toledo found that half of the increase in black out-of-wedlock births in recent decades could be attributed to the effects of welfare. Research by Shelley Lundberg and Robert D. Plotnick of the University of Washington shows that an increase of roughly $200 per a month in welfare benefits per family causes the teenage out-of-wedlock birth rate in a state to increase by 150 percent. Dr. June O’Neill’s research has found that, holding constant a wide range of other variables such as income, parental education and urban and neighborhood setting, a 50 percent increase in the monthly value of AFDC and Food Stamp benefits led to a 43 percent increase in the number of out-of-wedlock births.16)

This pattern also holds in Canada, where welfare disbursements are more generous. A recent study of the Canadian welfare system, for instance, found that increases in welfare led to an increase in the number of births outside of marriage. An addition of $100-$200 in yearly welfare support was found to lead to a 5 percent increase in the probability of being a single parent, a 2 percent increase in the probability of a child being born out of wedlock and a 1 percent increase in divorce.17)

4. Role of Government

The evidence is clear and disturbing, being born outside of marriage lowers the health of newborns and increases their chances of dying; it delays children’s cognitive (especially their verbal) development; it lowers their educational achievement; it lowers their job attainment; it increases their behavior problems; it lowers their impulse control; it warps their social development; it helps change their community from being a support to being a danger to their development; and it increases the crime rate in their community.

To make the situation worse, the government has instilled powerful incentives in the welfare system which makes illegitimacy a community way of life, particularly in very poor communities. The widespread incidence of illegitimacy in turn passes on all these effects to the next generation in an even more malignant form.

While the government cannot instill virtue, it does not need to subsidize this rejection. Government policies have subsidized illegitimacy, and the evidence of its serious effects are steadily growing. Congress must adopt policies friendly to children. But to do that Congress must first become more friendly to married fathers and mothers.

1) Carmen Solomon-Fears, “Nonmarital Births: An Overview,” Congressional Research Services Report (2014). Available at http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43667.pdf Accessed September 4, 2015.
U.S. Bureau of the Census, “CDC: Fewer Children Born Out of Wedlock”, Current Population Reports P-60, (August 2014) 1994.
2) Ione Y. Deollos, “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage,” Journal of Marriage and Family 68, no. 4 (2006): 1112-1113.
Naomi Farber, “The Significance of Race and Class in Marital Decisions among Unmarried Adolescent Mothers,” Social Problems 37 (1990): 51-63.
3) Jonathan Vespa, Jamie M. Lewis, and Rose M. Kreider “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012”, (2013).
Data from National High School and Beyond panel study of 13,601 teenagers, from Allan F. Abrahamser, Peter A. Morrison, and Linda J. Waite, “Teenagers Willing to Consider Single Parenthood: Who is at Greatest Risk?” Family Planning Perspectives 20, no. 1 (January 1988): 13-18.
4) R.S. Högnäs and M.J. Carlson, “Like Parent, Like Child? The Intergenerational Transmission of Nonmarital Childbearing,” Social Science Research 41, no. 6 (2012): 1480–1494.
Neil Bennett and David Bloom, “The Influence of Non-marital Childbearing on The Formation of Marital Unions,” Paper given at NICHD conference on “Outcomes of Early Childbearing,” May 1992.
William Marsiglio, “Adolescent Fathers in the United States: Their Initial Living Arrangements, Marital Experience and Educational Outcomes,” Family Planning Perspectives 19 (1987): 240-251 (reporting a study of 5,500 young men).
5) Robert Rector, “The Effects of Welfare Reform”, Heritage Foundation (March 2001). Available at http://www.heritage.org/research/testimony/the-effects-of-welfare-reform.
Arthur B. Elsters et al., “Judicial Involvement and Conduct Problems of Fathers of Infants Born to Adolescent Mothers,” Pediatrics 79, no. 2, (1987): 230-234.
6) Douglas Smith and G. Roger Jarjoura, “Social Structure and Criminal Victimization,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency (February 1988): 27-52.
7) Robert J. Sampson, “Urban Black Violence: The Effect of Male Joblessness and Family Disruption,” American Journal of Sociology 93, (1987): 348-382.
8) M. Anne Hill and June O’Neill, Underclass Behaviors in the United States: Measurement and Analysis of Determinants (New York City: City University of New York, Baruch College March 1990).
9) Stephen Demuth and Susan L. Brown, “Family Structure, Family Processes, and Adolescent Delinquency: The Significance of Parental Absence versus Parental Gender,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41, no. 1 (February 2004): 58-81.
Allen J. Beck and Susan A. Kline, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Survey of Youth in Custody, 1987,” Special Report (September 1988).
10) Melissa Sickmund and Charles Puzzanchera, “Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2014 National Report,” National Center for Juvenile Justice (2014). Available at http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/nr2014/downloads/NR2014.pdf.
11) Ross L. Matsueda and Karen Heimer, “Race, Family Structure and Delinquency: A Test of Differential Association and Social Control Theories,” American Sociological Review 52, (1987): 826-840.
12) C. Knoester, & D.A. Hayne, “Community Context, Social Integration into Family, and Youth Violence,” Journal of Marriage and Family 67, (2005): 767-780.
13) Arleen Liebowitz, Marvin Eisen, and Winston K. Chow, “An Economic Model of Teenage Pregnancy Decision-Making,” Demography 23, no. 1 (1986): 67-77.
14) June O’Neill, “Communication on Analysis of National Longitudinal Study of Youth” to Robert Rector, (April 1994).
15) Sara S. McLanahan, “Family Structure and Dependency: Early Transitions to Female Household Headship,” Demography 5, no. 1 (1988): 1-16
16) Robert Rector, “Combating Family Disintegration, Crime, and Dependence: Welfare Reform and Beyond,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 983, (March 17, 1995); quoting: C.R. Winegarden, “AFDC and Illegitimacy Ratios: A Vector Autoregressive Model,” Applied Economics (March 1988): 1589-1601; Shelley Lundberg and Robert D. Plotnick, “Adolescent Premarital Childbearing: Do Opportunity Costs Matter?” (June 1990), a revised version of a paper presented at the May 1990 Population Association of American Conference in Toronto, Canada; and M. Anne Hill and June O’Neill, Underclass Behaviors in the United States: Measurement and Analysis of Determinants (New York City: City University of New York, Baruch College, August 1993), research funded by 88ASPE201A, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
17) Douglas W. Allen, “Welfare and the Family: The Canadian Experience,” Journal of Labor Economics 11, (1993): S201-S223.


This entry draws heavily from Rising Illegitimacy: America's Social Catastrophe.