Learning from Levi and Bristol

March 14, 2009 

— Now that Levi Johnston has confirmed his engagement to Bristol Palin is off, perhaps the young parents can retire from the public spotlight into which they were thrust when Bristol's mother, Sarah Palin, was chosen as John McCain's running mate. The teenagers deserve a return to relative normalcy as they struggle with the complications and challenges of their lives as parents to a baby boy.

Please don't read that as a celebration of the phenomenon. All other things being equal, I believe children are better off with two loving and responsible parents. (As the single mother of a 3-month-old, I'm aware of

We've spent the last few decades arguing, instead, over who's to blame for fractured families. Conservatives blame a "welfare state" that supports impoverished single mothers with taxpayer-funded checks. Liberals blame a culture that has refused to expand sex education and access to contraception. Traditionalists blame feminism, which has de-emphasized marriage and motherhood as a woman's only route to happiness. A good social historian would probably acknowledge the role of all those factors -- and many, many more.

Bristol's unplanned motherhood offers us another chance to get beyond blame and look for solutions. Her pregnancy serves as a stark reminder that the phenomenon of illegitimate pregnancy is not limited by race or religion. While black Americans have a much higher percentage of out-of-wedlock births (nearly 70 percent), the numbers are rising faster among whites (28 percent of white babies are born outside marriage) and Latinos (50 percent). She and her family are active members of an ultra-conservative church, so she is less immune to the influence of Hollywood and its version of feminism than many other young adults.

She herself acknowledged that abstinence-only classes don't work, although her mother is an adamant supporter of that approach. In any case, such interventions are unlikely to reach the age group in which unwed births are growing rapidly -- 20-something women. Teenaged mothers account for less than a quarter of out-of-wedlock births.

So what might help stem the tide? Contraception, contraception, contraception. In the United States, about half of all pregnancies are unintended, a much higher rate than in countries where birth control is emphasized and readily accessible.

For those children who will be born to single mothers no matter what, there is still good news. Research has found that many of the pathologies associated with children born outside marriage -- higher rates of educational failure, drug and alcohol abuse and criminal activity -- are attributable to the poverty and instability in which they are reared. So a public policy that concentrates on lifting them out of poverty can help those children succeed, no matter the choices their parents made.

We can also put more resources into encouraging marriage among those unmarried couples with children, whether by helping them gain better employment, giving them classes on financial management or giving them counseling on coping with the stresses of marriage and parenthood. Bristol and Levi might still get married one day, given encouragement and a bit of luck.

Universal Press Syndicate

Cynthia Tucker is editor of the opinion section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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