Single-Parent Issue Touches Sensitive Nerve


For the handful of politicians, social scientists and others who have dared speak out in recent years, the subject of unwed motherhood has been a minefield.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead knows the consequences all too well. A self-described lifelong liberal, she wrote an article in the April issue of The Atlantic magazine headlined "Dan Quayle Was Right."

Backed by a compelling array of research data, she argued that the demise of the two-parent family harms children and undermines American society. Mothers might not need fathers around, she wrote, but children do.

The mail, much of it angry, is still streaming in.

"People assume you're a right-winger if you talk about family issues," Whitehead says.

In 1965, for example, liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan--then an assistant secretary of labor, now a Democratic senator from New York--was branded a racist for linking the high poverty rate among black children to a rise in out-of-wedlock births among black women.

Then came former Vice President Dan Quayle's "Murphy Brown" speech about the perils of single motherhood.

Although Whitehead dislikes Quayle's "Ozzie and Harriet" approach to family values, she believes his remarks were wildly distorted: "I would submit that a lot of people who criticized him didn't read the entire speech."

Indeed, the bulk of what was arguably a sensible and reasoned talk was largely lost in the media hoopla that followed. And Whitehead picked up where the vice president left off.

In The Atlantic--and a forthcoming book--she cited study after study suggesting youngsters raised by single women (divorced or never-married) are far more likely to be poor, suffer emotional problems, break the law, get bad grades and abuse drugs.

And kids in step-families don't do much better.


There are exceptions, she carefully notes: "Some single mothers are able to be effective and good parents," but statistically speaking, the case against single motherhood is overwhelming.

Part of the problem is economic: Last year, nearly half of America's one-parent households were mired in poverty versus less than 10% of two-parent families.

More troubling, perhaps, are the psychological consequences. "Kids need their father's paycheck," Whitehead says, "but they also need him developmentally (and emotionally), especially boys."

Boys in fatherless homes, according to some social scientists, are more prone to "hypermasculine behavior," such as joining gangs, criminal activity and sexual aggressiveness toward girls. More than 70% of boys in state juvenile institutions are the products of such homes.

Daughters, too, are more vulnerable. And the problem "isn't limited to African-Americans, as many people seem to believe," Whitehead wrote in the Atlantic. "Among white families, daughters of single parents are 53% more likely to marry as teen-agers (and) 111% more likely to have children as teen-agers."

Whitehead blames the phenomena on a shift in public and media opinion. Societal taboos against unwed motherhood and divorce have collapsed, she says, and "adult choice, freedom and happiness" have taken precedence over what is best for children.

The trend seems likely to continue. As last week's Census Bureau report documents, the rate of out-of-wedlock births in the United States has skyrocketed. In 1960, it was one in 20. Last year, it was one in four.

Can things be reversed? Whitehead offers "only the most fragile kind of hope." Until recently, she says, many public figures were afraid to even address the situation for fear of being attacked as racist, anti-feminist or hopelessly out of touch with the realities of modern family structure.

Although much reaction to the Atlantic story has been harshly critical, a lot has been surprisingly positive, she says.

And the support, she adds, has turned up in some unexpected quarters: from government bureaucrats dealing with school problems, crime and rising welfare costs to liberal syndicated columnists such as William Raspberry, Clarence Page and David Broder.

Says Whitehead: "To the degree we can talk about it and have a debate about it, perhaps we can find our way out of it."

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