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Thinking like a scientist: Confronting the alarming stats of the No Wedding No Womb

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Last year Christelyn D. Karazin, Blogger and Social Activist founded and organized an online campaign to get 100+ (Black) Blogs to speak out on the 72 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate in the African American community in the United States.  The campaign went viral with hundreds of bloggers offering insight and suggestions to this so-called epidemic and the No Wedding No Womb (#NWNW on Twitter) movement gained inertia.

No Wedding No Womb

I was critical of the campaign before; I still am. I think it promotes marriage as a quick fix and doesn’t really get at what I think the bigger issue is - cultivating healthy adult relationships among African-American parents.  Here’s why.

The issue is framed as a problem, a social ill of the African-American Community.

First, it is important to note that this entire issue is introduced to the public in such a way to make it sound alarming, and bring attention to it.  Phrases like Out-of-wedlock Epidemic, Imploding birthrate of single black women, the Marriage Crisis in Black America and the Single-parent crisis are everywhere. That sets the tone and tenor of the discussion right from the start. To make the point very clear: No Wedding No Womb welcomes anyone and everyone with any viewpoint to participate in the campaign, as long they ACKNOWLEDGE the problem with 73% of black children born out of wedlock. Acknowledge the problem. The Problem?

It’s a number…just like this one: Approximately half of the people living today  suffer from a genetic malady: Broken Chromosome Disorder. Part of the 23rd chromosome is completely missing!! In nearly half the population…It’s an epidemic!

Map of human chromosomes from Amaral et al. BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008 8:169 doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-169

Interestingly, it is only seen in males.  The chromosome is intact among females.

Hopefully, you figured out that I was talking about the chromosome responsible for determining sex: male or female.  Indeed the Y chromosome of the XY pair that yield little boys is simply a broken X chromosome of which baby girls have two.

Broken Chromosome

Yeah, it sounds ridiculous; but that’s because you have a critical framework for this analogy.

My reaction to the No Wedding No Womb statistic was no different.  So, thinking like a scientist, trying my best to be objective and critically evaluating the points made, here are my counters to all of the alarming statistics and arguments being made.

1.  73 % African-American children in the United States are born to unmarried parents, but why is that necessarily a problem?  From the onset, the architect of the argument (who is also advocating for a particular solution) sets up the topic as a problem.  So, what if a majority of black babies are born to unmarried mothers?  What about this number tells you anything about who any of these people are? What kind of people they are? What they value, hold dear or understand about life to come? Nothing.  Any assumptions you may make about their morals or values or thoughts is all conjecture. Your assumptions may be based on a lot of personal knowledge of people like them, but you don’t know them. As a such you are only projecting your own [classist] assumptions on them.

The out-of-wedlock birthrate isn’t the problem.   The problem is the suite of ‘Societal Ills’ everyone to talking about.

For example:  Children from single-parent households tend to experience higher incidences of physical abuse and/or neglect and emotional abuse than children from two-parent households.  These children also have a higher tendency to have some sort of third party intervention or placement or get into trouble at school and with the law.  These children are more likely to grow up in poorer neighborhoods and feel the sting of crime and violence.

A variety of studies confirm that the lack of economic resources, the stress of single parenting, social isolation and a dearth of emotional support are factors which contribute to the higher rate of abuse, especially among young parents. (See When The Children of Single Parents End up Dead by Deborrah Coopersee the framing?) This is where I think we should focus our attention and propose solutions, such as anger-management counseling or ways to identify harmful adults who interact with children, or having a real-conversation with folks about the costs and benefits of starting a family at different ages and stages in life.

2. Being married doesn’t shield, protect or prevent any parent from experiencing any of these stresses. There are many married parents who are struggling to keep the lights on and who are raising kids alone because the spouse is working or not living in the home or for whatever reason (sick, injured, apathetic) is not interacting with the children. Not a happy situation, but it happens.

Plus, how would NWNW proponents explain the numbers of children from single parent homes that are safe and happy and do well in school? Or what about children from middle-class two-parent homes who end up in juvenile hall? What is the explanation for these outcomes? Simply presenting one piece of information tells you nothing about the remaining equation.

For example, from Deborah Cooper’s post:  Children living in single parent homes experienced a 77 % greater risk of being physically abused. All we know is that they have a measure of risk of physical abuse for children raised by one parent, nothing else.  Let’s convert this risk into a whole number with the equation equaling to 100.

# parents 1      77  (risk of abuse)          23  (not being abused) =  100
# parents 2      low? (risk of abuse)       high? (not being abused = 100

We cannot assume that being raised by two parents means the risk of abused is automatically (and mathematically correlated to be) lower simply because the number in counter-part condition is higher.  We still have to measure it.

Of the children studied, there was a 77% higher chance that if one was found to have been abused, they likely came from a single-parent home.  That is not the same as 77% of children from single-parent homes are physically abused.  The first explanation is a probability. The second explanation is a census or a count.  Even if either or both explanations were true, we still know nothing about the likelihood of abuse or percentage of children abused from two-parent homes. This statistic sheds no light on what that risk/incidence is at all.

It is a fallacy to assume the alternative condition is better (or worse or in any way different) than the current one if you have no information about the outcomes of that condition.  Are these statistics alarming? Heck yes! No doubt and I would like for all of them to change for the better.  However, I contend that all of these stats have be inappropriately interpreted which causes alarm over the issue AND distracts us from addressing the real problems.

3. Hasty generalizations are made about the positive outcomes and quality of parenting provided by two-parent versus single-parent households.

The children of marriage parents do much better on nearly every scale of health, education, wellbeing and more. Marriage is the best environment to raise children. Marriage is where men and women can be all they want to be with the help and support of a caring spouse. ~ Nisa Muhammad of the Wedded Bliss Foundation

As nice as her words sound, I don’t buy this idea that marriage – that ordained institution of husband and wife – is the only way for adults to have healthy relationships with each other.  Neither do I buy that marriage is the one best way to yield nearly perfect offspring.

Marriage is nice, and it may be lovely. (Disclaimer: I am not married and I am not a Ring Chaser.) I know a fair share of married couples who are blissfully happy and I know just as many who are indifferent and some who are not at all happy.  Of these couples that I know, they have children, some of whom have turned out great and some not-so-great.  I also know many single parents: some happy, some not-so-happy. Again, they have children, many of whom are very successful, healthy and cause no trouble and some who broke their mothers’ hearts.  So, what does this mean? Nothing.  The results are all over the place.  If you can’t find any clear and consistent trends that can be attributed to one condition or the other (1 parent versus 2 parents), then you can’t conclude that one is any better than the other, empirically. Furthermore, what about children whose parents were married but are now divorced? Or children raised in single-parent homes until the custodial parent married?  How do we explain this? Which columns do we assign that data?  How do we stay objective and not be tempted to attribute outcomes to the conditions that fit our biases?  Again, another key point to consider: the motives and interests of the researchers and/or presenters of this information.

4.  I think it is all-too-convenient to blame the ugly things we see today on the coincidental spike in out-of-wedlock birth rate.

The behaviors of the progeny of this years-long trend are proliferating. The obvious illustrations are the tacky dress habits and increasingly vocabulary-limited vulgarity in the music (and that’s just the current crop of young parents I’m talking about, not only their kids). (from The Children Are Not Alright, But We Can Make It Right by Martin Lindsey

I hear comments like this and I think: how does one condition automatically lead to another?  I mean in a direct mechanistic way. What does being married or having married parents have to do with whether or not children dress tacky or curse? Do I have a problem with young people being rude and ill-mannered? Yes, I do; but I’m not quite ready to say or imply or assume that he or she must be the child of a young unwed mother just because he or she is rude and unruly.  I’m not prepared to say or imply or assume that unwed parents will fail at parenting (whatever that means).  Single parenting wrought all of this? Really? Not perhaps poor parenting or absent role-models, apathetic adults? There still are too many alternative explanations (hypotheses) out there that can just as easily explain this mess and would probably also include the children of married couples, thereby nullifying the hypothesis that out-of-wedlock parenting is the blame.

Moreover, what are we communicating when we set up these expectations of people based on these assumptions of marital status at time of birth?  I’ll admit my biases when I have them; and this particular argument grates me hard. Whether spoken or acknowledged, the kind of pontificating on the problems of out-of-wedlock birthrate that is happening online and in real life possesses a sting.  If you happen to be either a parent or child of such a circumstance – or as Ms. Karazin puts it – then you are part of a problem; your life will be filled with problems, which is very likely.  But what I also hear is you’re a problem and we have a problem with you. I am sure that is not the intentions of the proponents –  to make judgments about people, about children, about their destinies, and intentions.  However, I want folks to know that the way the topic is being broached and discussed makes many people uncomfortable, like me.

I was born to an unmarried teen-age mom. Her mother had six children with three different men. So what would you assume about me, my mom, my life?  How could I have I possibly got through life without becoming a teenage mom or having 2+ baby daddies? How was I able to earn a college degree and a PhD?  Those statistics aren’t prophecies. They are just numbers. You make your own destiny.

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. mhenriday 9:26 am 09/24/2011

    Very valid points, which cannot be repeated too often….

    Henri

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  2. 2. EricMJohnson 11:23 am 09/24/2011

    Very nicely stated.

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  3. 3. eurotimbr 6:54 pm 09/24/2011

    You are treating Deborah Cooper’s post as if she said that children in a single parent home have a 77% chance of being abused. She is actually saying that they have a 77% greater risk of being abused than those in the general population. Thus if, for example, the abuse rate in the general population is 10%, she is saying that the abuse rate in single parent homes would be 17.7%

    Link to this
  4. 4. DNLee 12:25 am 09/25/2011

    Thanks. and I re-read that Eurotimbr. You’re right. It is risk and not chance of abuse. Thanks.

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  5. 5. vagnry 3:27 pm 09/25/2011

    Well, I can’t help but wondering, do you use statistics in your studies of animal behavior, see if the critter that bites you has had different conditions from the ones that are more trusting?

    I would guess, that the average single mom, be she black, white, hispanic etc., is younger, poorer, less well educated, has less stable work and housing conditions, comes from a non-married mother, than comparable married (or in stable relationship) mothers, and that her pregnancy is more often unplanned.

    All those, and probably a lot of other aspects, may be (part of) the reason why they become unmarried mothers. Bad social conditions are likely to be “heriditary”.

    Two of my employees, one some 30 odd years old, had a “chance” pregnancy, the other, at the age of 40, realised she coulldn’t wait any longer for mr. right, got an artificial insemination from an unknown donor.

    Both are well educated, well payed, in steady employ, own their own house/apartment, etc., and are wonderful mothers (though it’s hard to go it alone, they both say), I’m sure their kids will be an asset to our community.

    But they are, unfortunately, far from being typical of the single mom!

    To get back to statistics, I’m sure they show quite unequivocally, that kids of single moms have a lower chance of success in their lives.

    The US is, as far as I know, one of the western countries with the highest teenage pregnancy rate, maybe more pills, information and abortions would be an effective cure!

    Link to this
  6. 6. gmperkins 4:51 pm 09/26/2011

    I think you are correct, the way this movement states the issue brings with it alot of assumptions (and different people will bring different assumptions…). Like the one you address, do you really need marriage to properly raise a child?
    My quick take is that there is a big difference between choosing to have a child out-of-wedlock and getting pregnant while fooling around without propper protection. Responsible verse Irresponsible. I have no studies to back this but I believe being a responsible person makes it more likely you will be a responsible parent (no gaurentee, the stresses of parenting plus possible illfortune (lose job, etc.) can push some responsible people “over-the-edge”). And being responsible (making good money choices, life choices, etc.) seems to be the proper idea to build for youth/teens anywhere and everywhere. The tools to take on challenges of raising a child and to pick oneself up after a fall.
    Unfortunately, can’t really make that into a catchy slogan. I just hope it is part of this movement (which I currently only have a few minor articles/blog posts to go on). Seems they would have to bring up at least some ideas on how to go about being a more responsible person.

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