The Coming White Underclass

Every once in a while the sky
really is falling, and this seems to be the case with
the latest national figures on illegitimacy. The
unadorned statistic is that, in 1991, 1.2 million
children were born to unmarried mothers, within a hair
of 30% of all live births. How high is 30%? About four
percentage points higher than the black illegitimacy
rate in the early 1960s that motivated Daniel Patrick
Moynihan to write his famous memorandum on the breakdown
of the black family.

The 1991 story for blacks is that
illegitimacy has now reached 68% of births to black
women. In inner cities, the figure is typically in
excess of 80%. Many of us have heard these numbers so
often that we are inured. It is time to think about them
as if we were back in the mid-1960s with the young
Moynihan and asked to predict what would happen if the
black illegitimacy rate were 68%.

Impossible, we would have said. But
if the proportion of fatherless boys in a given
community were to reach such levels, surely the culture
must be "Lord of the Flies" writ large, the
values of unsocialized male adolescents made norms —
physical violence, immediate gratification and predatory
sex. That is the culture now taking over the black inner

But the black story, however
dismaying, is old news. The new trend that threatens the
U.S. is white illegitimacy. Matters have not yet quite
gotten out of hand, but they are on the brink. If we
want to act, now is the time.

In 1991, 707,502 babies were born
to single white women, representing 22% of white births.
The elite wisdom holds that this phenomenon cuts across
social classes, as if the increase in Murphy Browns were
pushing the trendline. Thus, a few months ago, a Census
Bureau study of fertility among all American women got
headlines for a few days because it showed that births
to single women with college degrees doubled in the last
decade to 6% from 3%. This is an interesting trend, but
of minor social importance. The real news of that study
is that the proportion of single mothers with less than
a high school education jumped to 48% from 35% in a
single decade.

These numbers are dominated by
whites. Breaking down the numbers by race (using data
not available in the published version), women with
college degrees contribute only 4% of white illegitimate
babies, while women with a high school education or less
contribute 82%. Women with family incomes of $75,000 or
more contribute 1% of white illegitimate babies, while
women with family incomes under $20,000 contribute 69%.

The National Longitudinal Study of
Youth, a Labor Department study that has tracked more
than 10,000 youths since 1979, shows an even more
dramatic picture. For white women below the poverty line
in the year prior to giving birth, 44% of births have
been illegitimate, compared with only 6% for women above
the poverty line. White illegitimacy is overwhelmingly a
lower-class phenomenon.

This brings us to the emergence of
a white underclass. In raw numbers, European-American
whites are the ethnic group with the most people in
poverty, most illegitimate children, most women on
welfare, most unemployed men, and most arrests for
serious crimes. And yet whites have not had an
"underclass" as such, because the whites who might
qualify have been scattered among the working class.
Instead, whites have had "white trash" concentrated in a
few streets on the outskirts of town, sometimes a Skid
Row of unattached white men in the large cities. But
these scatterings have seldom been large enough to make
up a neighborhood. An underclass needs a critical mass,
and white America has not had one.

But now the overall white
illegitimacy rate is 22%. The figure in low-income,
working-class communities may be twice that. How much
illegitimacy can a community tolerate? Nobody knows, but
the historical fact is that the trendlines on black
crime, dropout from the labor force, and illegitimacy
all shifted sharply upward as the overall black
illegitimacy rate passed 25%.

The causal connection is murky — I
blame the revolution in social policy during that
period, while others blame the sexual revolution, broad
shifts in cultural norms, or structural changes in the
economy. But the white illegitimacy rate is approaching
that same problematic 25% region at a time when social
policy is more comprehensively wrongheaded than it was
in the mid-1960s, and the cultural and sexual norms are
still more degraded.

The white underclass will begin to
show its face in isolated ways. Look for certain schools
in white neighborhoods to get a reputation as being
unteachable, with large numbers of disruptive students
and indifferent parents. Talk to the police; listen for
stories about white neighborhoods where the incidence of
domestic disputes and casual violence has been shooting
up. Look for white neighborhoods with high
concentrations of drug activity and large numbers of men
who have dropped out of the labor force. Some readers
will recall reading the occasional news story about such
places already.

As the spatial concentration of
illegitimacy reaches critical mass, we should expect the
deterioration to be as fast among low-income whites in
the 1990s as it was among low-income blacks in the
1960s. My proposition is that illegitimacy is the single
most important social problem of our time — more
important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy,
welfare or homelessness because it drives everything
else. Doing something about it is not just one more item
on the American policy agenda, but should be at the top.
Here is what to do:

In the calculus of illegitimacy,
the constants are that boys like to sleep with girls and
that girls think babies are endearing. Human societies
have historically channeled these elemental forces of
human behavior via thick walls of rewards and penalties
that constrained the overwhelming majority of births to
take place within marriage. The past 30 years have seen
those walls cave in. It is time to rebuild them.

The ethical underpinning for the
policies I am about to describe is this: Bringing a
child into the world is the most important thing that
most human beings ever do. Bringing a child into the
world when one is not emotionally or financially
prepared to be a parent is wrong. The child deserves
society`s support. The parent does not.

The social justification is this: A
society with broad legal freedoms depends crucially on
strong nongovernmental institutions to temper and
restrain behavior. Of these, marriage is paramount.
Either we reverse the current trends in illegitimacy —
especially white illegitimacy — or America must,
willy-nilly, become an unrecognizably authoritarian,
socially segregated, centralized state.

To restore the rewards and
penalties of marriage does not require social
engineering. Rather, it requires that the state stop
interfering with the natural forces that have done the
job quite effectively for millennia. Some of the changes
I will describe can occur at the federal level; others
would involve state laws. For now, the important thing
is to agree on what should be done.

I begin with the penalties, of
which the most obvious are economic. Throughout human
history, a single woman with a small child has not been
a viable economic unit. Not being a viable economic
unit, neither have the single woman and child been a
legitimate social unit. In small numbers, they must be a
net drain on the community`s resources. In large
numbers, they must destroy the community`s capacity to
sustain itself. Mirabile dictu, communities
everywhere have augmented the economic penalties of
single parenthood with severe social stigma.

Restoring economic penalties
translates into the first and central policy
prescription: to end all economic support for single
mothers. The AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent
Children) payment goes to zero. Single mothers are not
eligible for subsidized housing or for food stamps. An
assortment of other subsidies and in-kind benefits
disappear. Since universal medical coverage appears to
be an idea whose time has come, I will stipulate that
all children have medical coverage. But with that
exception, the signal is loud and unmistakable: From
society`s perspective, to have a baby that you cannot
care for yourself is profoundly irresponsible, and the
government will no longer subsidize it.

How does a poor young mother
survive without government support? The same way she has
since time immemorial. If she wants to keep a child, she
must enlist support from her parents, boyfriend,
siblings, neighbors, church or philanthropies. She must
get support from somewhere, anywhere, other than the
government. The objectives are threefold.

First, enlisting the support of
others raises the probability that other mature adults
are going to be involved with the upbringing of the
child, and this is a great good in itself.

Second, the need to find support
forces a self-selection process. One of the most
short-sighted excuses made for current behavior is that
an adolescent who is utterly unprepared to be a mother
"needs someone to love." Childish yearning isn`t a good
enough selection device. We need to raise the
probability that a young single woman who keeps her
child is doing so volitionally and thoughtfully. Forcing
her to find a way of supporting the child does this. It
will lead many young women who shouldn`t be mothers to
place their babies for adoption. This is good. It will
lead others, watching what happens to their sisters, to
take steps not to get pregnant. This is also good. Many
others will get abortions. Whether this is good depends
on what one thinks of abortion.

Third, stigma will regenerate. The
pressure on relatives and communities to pay for the
folly of their children will make an illegitimate birth
the socially horrific act it used to be, and getting a
girl pregnant something boys do at the risk of facing a
shotgun. Stigma and shotgun marriages may or may not be
good for those on the receiving end, but their deterrent
effect on others is wonderful — and indispensable.

What about women who can find no
support but keep the baby anyway? There are laws already
on the books about the right of the state to take a
child from a neglectful parent. We have some 360,000
children in foster care because of them. Those laws
would still apply. Society`s main response, however,
should be to make it as easy as possible for those
mothers to place their children for adoption at infancy.
To that end, state governments must strip adoption of
the nonsense that has encumbered it in recent decades.

The first step is to make adoption
easy for any married couple who can show reasonable
evidence of having the resources and stability to raise
a child. Lift all restrictions on interracial adoption.
Ease age limitations for adoptive parents.

The second step is to restore the
traditional legal principle that placing a child for
adoption means irrevocably relinquishing all legal
rights to the child. The adoptive parents are parents
without qualification. Records are sealed until the
child reaches adulthood, at which time they may be
unsealed only with the consent of biological child and

Given these straightforward changes
— going back to the old way, which worked — there is
reason to believe that some extremely large proportion
of infants given up by their mothers will be adopted
into good homes. This is true not just for flawless
blue-eyed blond infants but for babies of all colors and
conditions. The demand for infants to adopt is huge.

Some small proportion of infants
and larger proportion of older children will not be
adopted. For them, the government should spend lavishly
on orphanages. I am not recommending Dickensian
barracks. In 1993, we know a lot about how to provide a
warm, nurturing environment for children, and getting
rid of the welfare system frees up lots of money to do
it. Those who find the word "orphanages" objectionable
may think of them as 24-hour-a-day preschools. Those who
prattle about the importance of keeping children with
their biological mothers may wish to spend some time in
a patrol car or with a social worker seeing what the
reality of life with welfare-dependent biological
mothers can be like.

Finally, there is the matter of
restoring the rewards of marriage. Here, I am
pessimistic about how much government can do and
optimistic about how little it needs to do. The rewards
of raising children within marriage are real and deep.
The main task is to shepherd children through
adolescence so that they can reach adulthood — when
they are likely to recognize the value of those rewards
— free to take on marriage and family. The main purpose
of the penalties for single parenthood is to make that
task easier.

One of the few concrete things that
the government can do to increase the rewards of
marriage is make the tax code favor marriage and
children. Those of us who are nervous about using the
tax code for social purposes can advocate making the tax
code at least neutral.

A more abstract but ultimately
crucial step in raising the rewards of marriage is to
make marriage once again the sole legal institution
through which parental rights and responsibilities are
defined and exercised.

Little boys should grow up knowing
from their earliest memories that if they want to have
any rights whatsoever regarding a child that they sire
— more vividly, if they want to grow up to be a daddy
— they must marry. Little girls should grow up knowing
from their earliest memories that if they want to have
any legal claims whatsoever on the father of their
children, they must marry. A marriage certificate should
establish that a man and a woman have entered into a
unique legal relationship. The changes in recent years
that have blurred the distinctiveness of marriage are
subtly but importantly destructive.

Together, these measures add up to
a set of signals, some with immediate and tangible
consequences, others with long-term consequences, still
others symbolic. They should be supplemented by others
based on a re-examination of divorce law and its

That these policy changes seem
drastic and unrealistic is a peculiarity of our age, not
of the policies themselves. With embellishments, I have
endorsed the policies that were the uncontroversial law
of the land as recently as John Kennedy`s presidency.
Then, America`s elites accepted as a matter of course
that a free society such as America`s can sustain itself
only through virtue and temperance in the people, that
virtue and temperance depend centrally on the
socialization of each new generation, and that the
socialization of each generation depends on the matrix
of care and resources fostered by marriage.

Three decades after that consensus
disappeared, we face an emerging crisis. The long, steep
climb in black illegitimacy has been calamitous for
black communities and painful for the nation. The
reforms I have described will work for blacks as for
whites, and have been needed for years. But the brutal
truth is that American society as a whole could survive
when illegitimacy became epidemic within a comparatively
small ethnic minority. It cannot survive the same
epidemic among whites.

Mr. Murray, a fellow at the
American Enterprise Institute, is the author of

Losing Ground,

(Basic, 1984).