Dr. Michael Forster

Out-of-wedlock births: Let’s quit confusing cause and effect

Mississippi has many problems, but few more troubling than high rates of teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births (aka “illegitimacy”) – 55% of children born in the state last year were reported born to unwed mothers.

As politicians and pundits are fond of pointing out, growing up with a teen mom – notably if she’s already poor, and poorly educated – puts a child at high risk for a wide range of individual and social pathologies: poverty, drug abuse, dropping out of school, delinquency (and eventually adult criminality), among others.

It’s tempting, then, to identify out-of-wedlock births as the cause of so much that ails Mississippi.  And from that to follow with self-evident “solutions” – promote abstinence, self-discipline, conservative social values, marriage and family.

Alas, if only it were that easy.  We have to be careful here to avoid confusing “correlation” with “cause.”  The unfortunate reality is that teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth are at least as much effects of pathology – notably poverty and poor education – as they are causes all the nasty outcomes that comes with it.  (In fact I’m inclined to say that they’re more effect than cause, but then I’m a bleeding-heart liberal social worker, so what do you expect?)

Here’s an alternative notion: Let’s develop and fully fund a truly top-notch educational system – pre-K through higher education, complete with supportive social services – and see what happens to the rate of out-of-wedlock births, as well as all the other dismal statistics dogging us.  Excellent education levels the playing field of opportunity.  With excellent education, we raise Mississippi’s human capital and start making progress that sticks.

Dr. Michael Forster
Dr. Michael Forster

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