Get Hitched, Young Woman

Why have "out-of wedlock" pregnancies suddenly entered the national debate over President's Bush's astonishingly incompetent failure to rescue the poor in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina?

The answer is obvious: It's a great way to change the subject, and to remind us that in contemporary America, only unmarried mothers fail to demonstrate "personal responsibility."

Never mind that neither the Pentagon nor Congress can account for the $200 billion that have been spent waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or that George W. Bush has saddled the nation with a monstrous national debt. Never mind that he sent tens of thousands of young people to Iraq on cooked-up intelligence and that no government official has taken responsibility for the torture of prisoners. Or that Afghanistan is once again the world's leading exporter of narcotics. Never mind that Bush chose Michael D. Brown, an inexperienced and incompetent crony, to run FEMA, with disastrous consequences.

The Bush administration only believes in accountability and personal responsibility when it involves women's sexuality and their reproductive choices.

Consider what's happened ever since Katrina stormed through the Gulf Coast. For the first time since the 1960s, Americans watching the news rediscovered poverty. Suddenly, everyone could see that Bush's tax cuts to the wealthy had not, in fact, lifted all Americans into the middle class.

What a perfect moment to change the subject and blame poor African-American women for causing the poverty the world witnessed in the aftermath of Katrina.

Without skipping a beat, Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, proclaimed that the "The root of it [the poverty exposed by Katrina] is the breakdown of the family. Roughly 60 percent of births in New Orleans are out of wedlock."

Lowry then went on to propose a "grand right-left bargain that includes greater attention to out-of-wedlock births from the left in exchange for the right's support for more urban spending…"

Clueless liberals quickly accepted Lowry's clever reframing of the problem. Nicholas Kristof embraced it as an "excellent suggestion" in his New York Times column. Even former Sen. John Edwards, who attacked Bush for supporting the privileged, rather than the poor after Katrina, called on everyone to speak "hard truths" about the out-of wedlock pregnancies that condemn so many people to perpetual poverty.

Don't get me wrong. Stable two-parent families--absent violence, drugs or alcohol--usually offer children the best chance to escape poverty. But Lowry and his cheerleaders have it backwards. The decline in teenage pregnancies since the early 1990s, particularly among African-American girls, indicates that young women are, in fact, taking greater personal responsibility.

As New York Times reporter Jason DeParle revealed in his book American Dream, it is poverty itself -- not a lack of personal responsibility--that is the main reason for single-parent families. With amazing gall, conservatives have shredded the safety net and then blamed unmarried mothers for their own neglect-the-poor policies.

Spending millions of dollars to promote marriage and sexual abstinence, for example, has not improved the "personal responsibility" of poor boys and men. Eliminating contraception from sex education classes, restricting access to abortion, and postponing the "morning after" pill has not changed the fact that we still have higher teen pregnancy rates in the United States than in Europe. Ending welfare--without providing affordable child care and health care, paid family leave and a higher minimum wage---hasn't kept working women and their families from plunging below the poverty line.

Poor women, moreover, are not the only ones choosing to raise children by themselves. Single women--across all racial and class lines--are now the fastest growing demographic group in our population. One-third of American women are currently single, and growing numbers of them are choosing to bear and raise children alone. Despite conservatives' glorification of "family values" and "the traditional family," only one-quarter of American households now include two parents and children.

The reasons why so many women are remaining unmarried differ considerably, but they are not all that mysterious. Having gained a minimal degree of independence as paid workers, some are unwilling to put up with abusive or violent relationships. Still others may be reluctant to settle for anything less than a partner committed to an egalitarian marriage.

The fact is, women's lives have dramatically changed during the last 40 years, but neither our government nor our society have made the necessary changes that should have accompanied the entry of such huge numbers of women into the labor force.

Meanwhile, social conservatives gaze upon the human consequences of their policies, are embarrassed by what they see, and then attack unmarried mothers for their lack of personal responsibility--and condemn them for the poverty exposed by Katrina.

A nifty argument, if they can get away with it.

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