• Sat, May 4 - 11:30 am ET

Unemployed, Unmarried People Have Lots of Sex And Babies, But Let’s Not Demonize Them

single-momThe Census Bureau’s new report on nonmarital births confirms what most of us probably expected: In areas with massive numbers of unemployed men, there are more nonmarital births. It looks like 57 percent of women who had less than a high school education give birth out of wedlock, and 68 percent of black women give birth out of wedlock.

Philip Cohen argues in The Atlantic that these statistics aren’t the problem itself, but they’re the symptom of a problem. Says Cohen, “If we addressed the problems of education and employment, is there any doubt family security and stability would improve, and with it the wellbeing of children and their parents?”

Amen, brother.

But leave it to readers to air out their misinformed opinions on The Atlantic website. Comments on the piece range from the rude:

“This is what happens when the society wants unlimited sexual freedom, but zero personal responsibility.”

To the outright ignorant:

“The author is saying that these people recognize they have few prospects, and that this lack makes raising kids more difficult, but that they actually go have kids anyway??? That doesn’t logically follow.”

Um, except it absolutely follows. A good friend of mine lives in a small Missouri town, population 400, with 98.97 percent of those people being white. There are so desperately few jobs to be had — gas stations, post office, and construction are just about the only options. You know what the teens do for entertainment? Drive around. Sit in people’s homes and smoke and drink. There isn’t a movie theater, or a downtown in which to stroll, or a mall, or a restaurant. Birth control is hard to come by, expensive, and stigmatized.

So let’s see. Lack of jobs means more free time. Lack of entertainment options means more boredom. Lack of education means no birth control. Free time + Boredom + No Birth Control, drumroll please!

Equals BABIES!

You may wonder why these people don’t just leave. Seems like an obvious solution, right? That’s where you underestimate the force of family loyalty. When your parents and siblings and peers live in a small town like this and you grow up with that constant familiarity, it’s extremely difficult to forge out on one’s own. My friend is a college graduate, whip-smart, strong and ambitious, yet she moved back because she loves her parents and wants to be near them.

Listen, it’s a cliche but I really, truly think that until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes you can’t offer up blanket statements about their lives. Although I agree with Cohen’s assessment that we need to address problems of unemployment and education, I also worry that statistics like these only serve to perpetuate ignorant notions that if these poor, unwed mothers and fathers “just worked a little harder” their lives would be peachy keen.

(photo: Masson/shutterstock)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/valerisexton.jones Valeri Jones

    Amanda, you are so right! And I know there are going to be a lot of readers that appreciate this article.

    I live in a small town, also. Granted, it’s more populated and we have a University and lots of things for kids to do. But the high school pregnancy rate here is ridiculously high. My graduating class gave birth to more babies than any class in the history of our high school. 30 out of a class of 110. 27% of my classmates were mothers before or shortly after their 18th birthday. And these are just the ones that graduated. There were oodles more that dropped out or went to an alternative high school. This is also one of those towns where people are fiercely loyal to their roots. I have no actual figures for this, but I would guess that at least 85% of our graduates still live here. Some, including the ones who had babies at 17 or 18, have went on to graduate college and have wonderful careers and just all together wonderful lives. (According to Facebook, of course.) Others are strung out on heroin and Oxycontin and in and out of jail while their parents or the foster system raise their children.

    And then there’s people like me. I’ve lived here most of my life. I graduated high school a virgin (gasp!), with a 3.75 GPA and big dreams. I got to college, and let’s just say that the freedom didn’t mix well with my sheltered life. I dropped out, became addicted to drugs, and chased a boy around the eastern part of the country (to no avail) for the better part of 7 years. But then, I finally smartened up…. I was raised better than that, after all. I got married at 26 and had my son at 27. I just turned 28 and we own our own home free and clear, both of our cars, and both my husband and I are going to school full time while we both work full time. We struggle to make ends meet, but we are wonderful parents and work hard to be good role models for our kids.

    I am a testament to how those blanket statements just don’t fit, and so are some of the girls I graduated with. While I would like to see the teen pregnancy rate go down, especially around here, these girls shouldn’t have to face so much shaming from society. If anything, it only makes it harder for them to accomplish goals. It’s a lot harder to do something when basically everyone is telling that you can’t or you won’t be able to.

  • R. Norris

    Your friend’s story rings so true for me. If you replaced Missouri with Tennessee, you would have my hometown. I remember in high school a common joke was that the reason why there was so much drug use and teen pregnancy was because there was nothing else to do. It seems kind of dark and pessimistic to say that (and for teens to say that about one another), but it is entirely too true. If you add the legacy of undervaluing education– not necessarily a college education but learning in general– and shaming young women who seek out birth control, you have a recipe for very young mothers with no in-demand skill sets. Of course, that is if there happens to be any demand for jobs; I know that in my hometown, most people did retail work, food service, construction, or factory work, and lay-offs were frequent in all of these fields. The few people with advanced degrees were teachers or nurses, and even some of the skilled laborers (electricians, plumbers, welders, etc.) had to commute a good distance or travel frequently for work.

    I do want to add that another impediment to “breaking the cycle” by leaving the town is that many people simply never really think of leaving or don’t have the means. Many kids see their grandparents, parents, etc. living in the same small town, going to the same places, and doing the same things for many years, and they think it is just natural to remain in the town themselves. Also, moving is expensive, especially if your entire support system is located in one small town many miles away (and even more so if you are a 19 year-old with a toddler and no job training).

  • Cassy

    “Until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, you can’t offer up blanket statements about their lives.” AMEN! As someone else originally from a very small Missouri town, I also think your anecdote about your friend hits the nail on the head.

  • Rachel Sea

    Not to mention that if you are broke, you can hardly afford to leave, and if you are under-educated you have few prospects to go to.