The scandal and heartache of teen pregnancy has been exploited by producers of popular prime-time TV, who have made stories of 16-year-olds stumbling through accelerated adolescence into marketable drama. Likewise, news media have scrutinized the teen birth phenomenon for some time.

The truly shocking and underreported story, however, is that of unmarried 20-something parents. While 21 percent of children born outside of marriage are to teen mothers, more than 60 percent of unwed births occur to women in their 20s. It is not the young girls studying for the SAT or fretting over their prom prospects that make up the majority of women bearing the 40 percent of children born outside marriage. It is women in their 20s and 30s, demonstrating the impact of increasing cohabitation and the collapse of marriage, who are putting cradles before wedding bands.

While the teen pregnancy rate is important and should be addressed, the increase in unwed childbearing among young women in their 20s may signal serious social and economic problems for future generations. With unmarried, female households composing more than half of all families in poverty and the child poverty rate in single-parent households six times greater than in married families, the increase in unwed births threatens the economic and social well-being of women and children. Besides the higher average income and greater accumulation of assets among married families, children raised by married parents often have higher educational achievement, better health, and fewer behavioral problems than their peers living in single-parent households.

The economic consequences of an increase in unwed childbearing extends well beyond the individual women and children left unprotected by the benefits of marriage. Of the roughly $400 billion in welfare spending on low-income families in 2010 alone, nearly three-quarters went to single-parent households. With annual welfare spending increasing 44 percent since the 1996 welfare reform, American taxpayers can no longer afford to ignore the consequences of the collapse of marriage and increase in unwed childbearing. Policymakers can work now, however, to remove disincentives to marriage in low-income communities and to promote healthy marriage.

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