Who Needs Marriage?

A couple weeks ago, remarking on the coexistence of steadily rising illegitimacy with relative social peace over the last decade, Andrew wrote:

... social conservatives have long argued that the breakdown in traditional family structure is the core reason behind other social ills, such as crime. Perhaps it isn't in all social settings. Perhaps living in sin for a while before marriage is actually a social good for some; perhaps lower rates of marriage are not the end of the world - as many victims of awful marriages can attest. Perhaps child-birth outside marriage is not necessarily a bad thing if the relationship is solid and care for the child is secure. Perhaps, in other words, holding the family of the 1950s up as the standard by which all family structure should be measured is not, in fact, very helpful. I don't know, but it seems one obvious inference from the data worth exploring further.

It seems clear from looking at Europe that Andrew's right, up to a point: Child-birth outside marriage doesn't necessarily lead to negative social outcomes "if the relationship is solid and care for the child is secure," which it usually is in countries like Sweden where most children born out of wedlock are still raised in two-parent households. Unfortunately Americans aren't Swedes, and marriage qua marriage tends to be a much more important indicator of well-being, both for children and for parents, in the United States than it does in Europe. Perhaps this will not always be so; perhaps the coexistence, in the 1990s and early Oughts, of falling crime and higher rates of out-of-wedlock births are a leading indicator of the Swedenization of American social norms. But I doubt it, not least because the secondary consequences of family breakdown, persistent inequality and social immobility chief among them, appear to have worsened over the last decade, while support for an expanded welfare state - Swedenization of a different sort! - has risen over the same stretch. It seems more likely that the lesson of the Nineties is that a long economic boom and the end of willfully counterproductive poverty policies can make up for growing social disarray in other areas. And counting on another tech boom or another poverty-fighting reform as successful as the shift from AFDC to TANIF seems like a poor guide to social policy.

All of this is a long way around to noting that the latest numbers on out-of-wedlock births have been released (though they're only receiving attention from immigration opponents, so far as I can tell), and the news is, well, not good: Up among blacks, up among whites, way up among Hispanics. Here's hoping Andrew's right about what this portends, or what it doesn't. But here's betting that he isn't.