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Social Disruptions

Out of Wedlock Births

In 1900 and for several decades thereafter, out-of-wedlock births were notorious and rare. Most pregnancies in unmarried women were rapidly followed by marriage when the pregnancy was discovered (demographers refer to these as "bridal pregnancies"). If not resolved by marriage, unmarried women who gave birth typically gave up their babies for adoption. From 1950 to 1999, the proportion of babies born out-of-wedlock (what the Census Bureau now calls "non-marital births") increased dramatically. This increase happened first among black women, but by 1999 the white rate had equaled the black rate of 1965. 

Out of wedlock births 2

Cohabitation and divorce 

Cohabition was almost impossible in the United States prior to the 1960s. Laws prevented unmarried couples from registering in hotels and it was very difficult for an unmarried couple to obtain a home mortgage. From 1960 to 1998, cohabition moved from disreputable and difficult to normal and convenient. Banks, employers, hotels, etc. all ceased to discriminate against cohabiters. Cohabitation became a common trial stage on the way to marriage for some couples, and a substitute for matrimony for others. Divorce was generally rarer in the first half of the twentieth century, except for a peak at the end of World War II, when ill-considered marriages made during the war were dissolved at war's end. In the 1960s and 1970s, divorce laws were changed in ways that made divorce easier to obtain. The divorce rate climbed to all-time highs, then receded somewhat. If the rates at the end of the century are maintained, then about 40% of marriages contracted in 2001 will end in divorce. 

Cohabiting couples

Divorce rate

Moynihan's Scissors 

While serving as an assistant secretary in the Department of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan discovered that a clear correlation existed between the nonwhite male unemployment rate and the number of new welfare cases. In other words, when black male unemployment rose, the number of new welfare cases also went up. And when unemployment went down, the number of welfare cases also went down. This made sense: when men lost their jobs, more women went on welfare. But by 1965 something had happened: the correlation had broken down. Nonwhite male unemployment was low, and declining further, but the number of new welfare cases was rising continuously. The lines crossed and continued to diverge. James Q. Wilson referred to these intersecting lines as "Moynihan's Scissors." 

Moynihan's scissors


Illegal drugs has not been unknown in the U.S., but from 1965 to 1975 the number of new users of marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens like LSD, rose dramatically. Drug use became a symbol of the counterculture. 


Teenage Births 

After rising for many years, the number of births to teenagers (married and unmarried) suddenly declined in the 1990s. The drop was considerably larger among black teenagers than white teenagers, but both groups' birth rates declined significantly. This may very likely portend a drop in the out-of-wedlock birth rate.

Teenage Births

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Program Segment 12

J. Wilson


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