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Worrying trends have occurred in the United States over the last twenty five years. Just when the cure for poverty appeared to be closer, and just when women had acquired the tools to manipulate and control the timing and number of their children, single motherhood started a long and steady rise. This was also accompanied by the feminization of poverty. The consequence has been the constancy in the rates of poverty in the United States. Understanding why these changes in the structure of the family has taken place is important. A popular explanation rests on the attitudinal changes towards sexual behavior. This paper supports this view and seeks to explain where these changes in the attitude in marital and sexual customs took place. Even though there are skepticism concerning the ultimate cause for an aspect as diffuse as a change in social custom, it would not be wrong to argue that technology and legalization of abortion have a major role to play. Technology has accounted for the massive change in marital and fertility patterns.
It is not possible to reverse the clock of technology by denying women access to contraceptives and abortions. Even if this could be possible, the results would be undesirable and counterproductive. In a new balance in which sexual abstinence is quite unheard of and there is minimal social ostracism toward out of wedlock motherhood, denying access to contraceptives and abortion would most likely increase the number of children that are being born by unmarried women. It should be ensured, on the contrary, that women employ these technologies if they choose to do so.
There has been a characteristic increase in the number of children being born out of wedlock over the last few decades. These children are born to women who are not married at the time of birth and have no intention of marrying soon after the birth. These women who give birth out of wedlock are from diverse backgrounds. It has been noted that a large percentage of these women comprise of career women aged over thirty five. Some of these women are so much absorbed into their career to an extent that they lack the time to date or look for a husband. Again, some women live a sexual lifestyle which cannot necessitate conventional marriage. The family conditions aspired by these women does not take into consideration any male surrogate to whom they have any attachment. As these women approach the age of forty, they are afraid that their capacity to bear children would soon end and thus attempt to become pregnant before it gets late.
2004 data suggest an increase in the percentage of non-marital births among all age groups. This trend towards births by unmarried women may be partly attributed to the increase in cohabitation and births within such relationships. An estimated forty percent of births by unmarried women in the mid-1990s was among women who were cohabiting. This contrasts with twenty nine percent in the early nineteen eighties. Recent estimates suggest that 49 percent of unmarried mother were cohabiting at the period of the child’s birth (Sigle-Rushton & McLanahan 2002:430).
In 2007, four out of 10 babies were born out of wedlock in the United States (Driscall et al. 1999:172). The majority of unmarried mothers before 1970 were teenagers. However, the recent times have witnessed an increase in the birthrate among unmarried women aged between twenty and forty. This figure has risen to 34 percent since 2002 in women aged thirty to thirty four. In 2007, sixty percent of all babies born out of wedlock came from women in their twenties. Twenty three percent of these babies were from teenagers while seventeen percent came from women over thirty years of age. A great percentage of this increase in unmarried births emanates from parents that are living together but are not married. This pattern is particularly prevalent among Hispanic women, rising by twenty percent from 2002 to 2006 (Bumpass 2007: 84). In 2006, 11 percent of unmarried Hispanic women had an infant. Seven percent of unmarried black women also had an infant in the same year while white unmarried woman recorded only seven percent. These figures were drawn from birth certificates in the government data. As indicated above, there exists a racial disparity in the percentage of non-marital births. Non-Hispanic white women and Pacific Islander women are less likely to have out of wedlock births.
A great deal of economic assistance and help is often required by young single mothers in their attempt to care for their children. However, the majority cannot get this help with the consequence that their life become extremely difficult, not only for them but also for their children. The most common and unfortunate situations arise when children are discovered neglected or abused, compelling experts to question what went wrong to allow such problems to occur. Statistics on such occurrences are shocking and they appear to be in the increase.
There is a general conception that women who give birth out of wedlock seem to be more disadvantaged than those who are married, before and after having a birth. Out of wedlock births have been associated with the increasing inequality and stratification of the American society. It is often conceived of as the first step that throw children into a more rigid system of caste system. Generally, unmarried mothers undergo financial difficulties, have low education levels and greatly depend on welfare services than married mothers. The economic difficulties may extend into old age, with single mothers who have stayed in this condition for a period of at least a decade possessing a greater risk of being poor at the age of sixty-five through seventy-five (Johnson & Favreault 2004:78).
Unmarried women who have children have a minimized marriage prospect when compared to unmarried women without children (Lichter & Graefe 2001:318). Children that have been born out of wedlock are more likely to be brought up in a single parent family, live in poverty, experience social and emotional problems and experience general instability in life. As they progress into adolescence, they are likely to engage in premarital sex at a younger age, achieve low grades in school and have premarital births (Aquilino 1996:301). As young adults, these children may experience a higher level of idleness, low occupational status and income, and experience divorces and troubled marriages than those born to married parents. These findings indicate that children that are born out of wedlock are more likely to experience life negatively than those born to married parents.
There exists a simple theory that attempts to explain the increase in the non-marital birthrate and the changes in sexual practices and family structure. This theory holds that the legitimization of abortion since the late 1960s compelled a large percentage of unmarried women who were not willing to go for an abortion in case of pregnancy to involve themselves in premarital sexual relationships while foregoing a marriage promise in case of premarital conception (Amato 2005:34). Again, the willingness of unmarried women to engage in uncommitted, premarital sex has been enhanced by the discovery of the pill and the availability of contraception. The behavioral shift has thus been motivated by technology shock. Women who desired to have children were worried of their competitive status and hence their capacity to bargain for marriage guarantee decreased. The degree of their partner’s willingness to marry may have also gone down once it became clear that the woman herself was not willing to obtain an abortion.
This technology shock hypothesis links the increase in out of wedlock childbearing to the reduced supply of eligible males. This decline is a consequence of the reduction in the number of men who are willing to get married. This theory also relates reduced marriage rates among educated men with low unemployment and reduced marriage rates among uneducated men with high unemployment. The theory also predicts a reduced intimacy between sexual partners which reinforces the unwillingness to marry. This theory attempts to explain the reason behind the large increase in the retention rate of children born out of wedlock. In the past, the woman would be guaranteed marriage if she wanted a child. The majority of premaritally conceived first births led to marriage before birth. In the condition that the woman did not get married after birth, there were minimal chances that the child could be kept. In modern times after abortion was legitimized, there are reasons why the baby was most likely to be kept. The unmarried women who desired to have children found it hard to make and enforce a contract where marriage was promised in a situation of pregnancy. Due to the fact that these women desired children, they would keep them naturally. Again, since women who did not desire children out of wedlock could easily access contraceptives and the choice of abortion, a considerably large percentage of children born out of wedlock would be wanted.
In the wake of technology shock, the practice of premarital sexual abstinence disappeared. Out of wedlock childbirth ceased to serve as sign of society’s morality with premarital sex being the rule. The stigma associated with out of wedlock childbearing gradually dissolved. Short gun marriage ceased to take place at the point of the short gun since social ostracism was no longer a consequence of out of wedlock childbirth. The reduced stigma has offered a reason for women to keep their children instead of putting them up for adoption.