At the top of the social scale, a more egalitarian version of traditional marriage is still going strong. Nearly 90% of university-educated mothers get married before having their first child—typically to an equally brainy, high-earning man. Such unions are durable and provide an excellent launchpad for children, who are showered with love and stimulation and grow up to do well in school and the workplace. These are the "planners."
Among non-graduate mothers, however, 58% of first births are out of wedlock. And although half of unmarried mothers are still living with the father when the baby is born (and another third are romantically involved with him but living apart), only a third of these couples are still intact by the time the child turns five. By contrast, four-fifths of married couples are still together at this point.
Scholars on the left tend to blame poverty for family breakdown. Ms Sawhill finds this too glib. Families were much poorer in the 1950s, but they stuck together. Unskilled men’s wages have fallen in recent decades, but not by much. This “cannot explain more than a small fraction” of the change at the bottom. On the contrary, the nuclear family is an effective way out of poverty. A child born in the bottom fifth has an 83% chance of escaping it if his parents remain married, compared with 50% if they were never wed.
Much of the problem is cultural, argues Ms Sawhill. The “feminist revolution seems to have bypassed low-income men.” Male university graduates largely treat their wives as equals; less educated men often don’t. They cannot accept not being master of the household, even if they earn less than their female partner. Increasingly, they opt out of parental responsibilities almost entirely. These are the "drifters."And the solution? Truly effective birth control--especially the IUD (very popular in China, but not so much in the US) or implants--to reduce unintended pregnancies and allow men and women to plan their lives, rather than drifting into miserable adulthood and dragging the children along with them.