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June 23, 2014

For millennials, out-of-wedlock childbirth is the norm

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

There are a multitude of reasons why women without a college education choose to have children outside of marriage, which Olga Khazan summed up wonderfully at the Atlantic. Whereas marriage used to be the first step of adulthood, many millennials see it as one of the last, a milestone you reach after financial stability. And while low-income men don't necessarily make attractive or reliable mates (mass incarceration doesn't help on this front), poorer women do often see raising a child as something meaningful to which they can devote themselves, especially if they don't have great career prospects. Those social forces won't disappear anytime soon, even amid the wrenchingly high rates of poverty that many single mothers face.

The conservative response to this web of issues is to say we need to encourage more marriages. But evidence suggests that single mothers who later wed usually end up divorced and worse off financially than before. Even if marriage promotion is a generally worthwhile goal, the government still has no real idea how to achieve it. So far, federally funded programs designed to encourage matrimony have delivered weak results, and even where they've had a positive impact, the change hasn't been nearly enough to make a significant dent in poverty. Meanwhile, cutting back on welfare for single mothers doesn't shrink their numbers.

There is, however, a more straightforward option: We act like the rich country we are, and grow the safety net so that families headed by single mothers aren't doomed to a life of impoverishment. As progressive blogger Matt Bruenig has written, single-mother households suffer far more poverty in the U.S. than in other developed nations. Why? As one study based on data from around the year 2000 concluded, it's largely down to our stingy welfare state. Before taxes and transfer programs, lone mothers and their children are more likely to be in poverty in Australia and Britain than in the U.S. — but after the government lends a helping hand, they're less likely. Compared to us at least, Nordic countries have virtually wiped away poverty among single mothers altogether. In short, there is no law of nature that says these families must be deprived of a decent living standard. To quote Bruenig, it's just "a policy choice."

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Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent. Before joining Slate, he was an editor at The Atlantic and and staff writer for The National Law Journal. His writing has also appeared in The Washington Post.

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