Motherhood getting lonelier

Motherhood no longer appears to be what it used to be.

Compared to 20 years ago, today's mothers of newborns are older, more educated, less often white, more often Hispanic -- and less often married.

A record 41 percent of American births in 2008 were born to single mothers, according to a new study of census and other data released by the Pew Research Center in time for Mothers Day. That's an increase from 28 percent in 1990.

Is marriage over? Not quite. But the report did find an increase in unmarried women in their childbearing years over the past two decades, and, judging by the numbers, the idea of marriage as a precursor to parenting in America appears to be suffering setbacks.

That does not bode well for the kids. Traditional marriage is better for kids emotionally, academically and economically, as President Obama, who barely knew his own dad, wrote in "The Audacity of Hope," his 2006 memoir. Children "living with single mothers are five times more likely to be poor than children in two-parent households," he wrote. "And the evidence suggests that on average, children who live with their biological mother and father do better than those who live in stepfamilies or with cohabiting partners."

Although the unmarried-mother share of births increased most sharply for whites and Hispanics, the Pew Study found the highest share among black women. That trend was forecast 45 years ago this past March in "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," a landmark report by a young White House appointee named Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

He warned that a disintegration of the black family threatened to undermine President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty. Black out-of-wedlock birthrates have since soared to about 67 percent by 1990 and 72 percent today, according to the Pew study. That compares with 53 percent of children born to Hispanic women, 29 percent of children born to white women and 17 percent of children born to Asian women.

Although Moynihan, who later became a Democratic senator from New York, subtitled his report, "A Call for National Action," it has led instead to an abundance of new arguments and excuses for inaction. Liberals tend to accuse conservatives of "blaming the victim" and conservatives accuse liberals of dodging "personal responsibility" and promoting dependency on hard-working taxpayers.

In fact, both sides are right. It is hard to promote marriage as a solution to social problems when the decline of marriage is itself the result of many social, economic, historical and personal problems, including poverty, crime, high incarnation rates and a widespread erosion of the belief among too many youths that personal responsibility does any good.

That's why the one silver lining in the report is in its confirmation of a health trend that delights social scientists, even if they are unable to completely explain it: a decline since the early 1990s in teen pregnancy rates in all racial and ethnic groups, even as each group had a higher share of new mothers aged 35 or older.

After disturbing surges in the 1980s, teen birth rates and pregnancy rates are down to their lowest level in 20 years. Regardless of the reason, we should take good news wherever we can find it -- and try to encourage more of it. Finding the answers to these encouraging trends among teenagers might lead us to positive cultural changes among older groups, particularly unmarried fathers who, as Beyonce sings in her popular tune, need to "Put a ring on it."

Contact Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist, at cpage@tribune.com.