Jeb Bush was right in 1995 and is right today

Jeb Bush smiles in front of Memory Wall at Warsaw Uprising Museum

Much of the media is salivating over a book Jeb Bush wrote in 1995 that may, or may not, have been read my someone. In it Bush makes this statement:

One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.

In a sane world this would be a very unremarkable statement. In fact, back when this book was fresh, this is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to say about out of wedlock childbearing:

These studies have found that unmarried mothers are less likely to obtain prenatal care and more likely to have a low birthweight baby. Young children in single-mother families tend to have lower scores on verbal and math achievement tests. In middle childhood, children raised by a single parent tend to receive lower grades, have more behavior problems, and have higher rates of chronic health and psychiatric disorders. Among adolescents and young adults, being raised in a single-mother family is associated with elevated risks of teenage childbearing, high school dropout, incarceration, and with being neither employed nor in school.

Researchers find that these negative effects persist even when they take into account factors, such as parented education, that often distinguish single parent from two-parent families. Other pre-existing differences may, of course, still distinguish single-parent families from two-parent families. Researchers have increasingly attempted to take account of subtle and difficult-to-measure variations in motivation, values, aptitude, and mental and physical health. To date, such analyses continue to find poorer outcomes among children in single-parent families.

The federal government spends millions of dollars each year to discourage this behavior because of the social pathologies that accompany it and the downstream costs and impacts. If one goes further into the past, former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (when he was an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson Administration) wrote in “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action” about the inextricable intertwining of out of wedlock childbearing with perpetual poverty and dependency over multiple generations. While the title may grate on modern ears, the conclusions have stood the test of time and, as unmarried childbearing has become a commonplace activity in other ethnic groups, we see the effects are not limited to a single race.

But some nitwit at Huffington Post (I know, that doesn’t narrow the waterfront very much), named Laura Bassett (like the hound) — @lebassett on Twitter — has decided that Bush broke new ground in the War on Women:

Public shaming would be an effective way to regulate the “irresponsible behavior” of unwed mothers, misbehaving teenagers and welfare recipients, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) argued in his 1995 book Profiles in Character.

Bush points to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the main character is forced to wear a large red “A” for “adulterer” on her clothes to punish her for having an extramarital affair that produced a child, as an early model for his worldview. “Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots,” Bush wrote.

One is hard pressed to understand Bassett’s disagreement beyond visualizing herself as striking a blow against patriarchy. In fact, Huffington Post, itself, has highlighted the difficulties facing single mothers and how the devastation of the family unit damages children:

There is some debate over whether unmarried partnerships are a negative outcome at all, or whether they are a sign of progress, reflecting the increasing economic independence of women and the trend toward individual freedom. However, results of the study conclude that compared with “traditional families,” parents of fragile families are more likely to have become parents in their teens, more likely to have had children with other partners, more likely to be poor, suffer from depression, struggle with substance abuse, and to have been incarcerated. They are also disproportionately African American and Hispanic.

Of the highest concern is what this means for the child, because as the number of fragile families increases, so do the number of children exposed to the unstable environments that they foster. Fragile families are shown to have harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities, and children of such families produce lower cognitive test scores and a have a higher incidence of aggressive behavior.

Furthermore, previous research demonstrates that children who live apart from one of their parents at some point in their childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age 20, and one and a half times as likely to be out of school or work by their late teens or early 20s.

The consequences are devastating, not only for these children and their families, but for our communities and for our society as a whole. As a child’s outcomes are compromised, the likelihood that they will continue that negative cycle into adulthood and with their own families is vastly increased. If unstable families are becoming more prevalent, the effect on future generations may be astronomic — a harrowing potential, considering the already deepening divide between struggling urban communities and their wealthier counterparts.

With the number of fragile families rising and the increased awareness of the negative outcomes for children and parents in such partnerships, we must ask ourselves whether we as a society should respond, and how.

If we follow Bassett’s argument to it’s logical conclusion, we must assume that she believes racist speech and misogyny should be socially acceptable. (As someone with a “Master’s degree in English Literature and gender studies” we know that she thinks misandry is perfectly fine.) After all, neither of those activities are actually harmful to anyone in a measurable way whereas the social and economic harm of unmarried childbearing is well documented. And if we aren’t willing to “shame” people for actually damaging society and harming children then why would be shame them for being all meany-pants?

It is hard to disagree with Bush’s assessment of the situation 20 years ago. Young women are deciding to have children out of wedlock because not only is there no social opprobrium attached to the act but there are actually perceived advantages. This lack of a downside married with our society’s fetish for anything having to do with the groin has produced a bumper crop of children who will be raised without ever knowing their father, and the mother may not be any more clear on the parentage than the kid. This in turn begets a web of social service agencies that exist only to administer welfare programs to the benefit of these mothers. Even our language has adapted to reflect this multi-generational an inheritable social pathology: “baby daddy” and “baby mama.”

As much as it may irk Bassett, Bush was right in 1995 and he remains right today. Absent some degree of social disapproval, we are looking at a future where nigh on half of all children will be raised without knowing their father. Nothing good can come of something that wrong and unnatural.