THE NEW WAVE OF ILLEGITIMACY Nearly one-third of all babies are born out of wedlock. Here's what to do about soaring illegitimacy and welfare costs.
By Lee Smith REPORTER ASSOCIATES Jacqueline Graves, Tricia Welsh

(FORTUNE Magazine) – NOT A SMIDGEN of scandal accompanied Shawn Harland Erickson when he arrived into the world early on New Year's Day, the first baby of 1994 in Brockton, Massachusetts. Shawn's mother, 19-year-old Tabitha Walters, is not married. Even so, she posed proudly with her baby, her mother, and her grandmother for the local newspaper. No reader was offended enough to write a letter to the editor. In Brockton and across the nation, the stigma of illegitimacy is fading fast. The illegitimacy rate, at the same time, is soaring. Shawn is one of at least 1.2 million American children -- 30% of all babies -- expected to be born out of wedlock this year. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that the black family was headed for serious trouble because the black illegitimacy rate was 24%. Today it is 67% overall and, by some estimates, 80% in urban ghettos. Less noticed, the rate among whites, including Hispanics, has catapulted from 3% to 22% over the same period. Even if that rate grows only moderately and stabilizes at, say, 33%, the absolute numbers would be considerable: more than one million births a year. Illegitimacy has already loaded a heavy burden on American taxpayers. Only 14% of never-married mothers received any child support in 1989, according to the most recent census data. Since the mothers' own resources are slim to none -- 65% of households headed by women have incomes of less than $20,000 -- the government has to step in. Shawn's delivery entitles his mother to more than $600 a month in food stamps, Medicaid, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. That places Shawn and his mom at the center of what is shaping up as one of the most important debates of the year: how to make such families self- supporting and reduce swelling welfare outlays, expected to reach $60 billion this year. (For all the attention television's Murphy Brown got, the number of babies born to real-life women like her -- affluent and unwed -- is tiny. See box.)

President Clinton won election partly on his promise to ''end welfare as we know it.'' The details of his plan are fuzzy, but the idea is for government to provide single mothers on welfare with job training for up to two years. If they can't land paying jobs, they would have to accept unpaid community work. That's an appealing concept but discouragingly expensive. Over the next five years, the Clinton plan would cost $15 billion more than we currently spend on welfare, mainly because of the expenses associated with training the women for jobs and providing them with support, such as transportation and child care. Although rising illegitimacy clearly adds to the cost of welfare, its indirect costs may be even higher. A decade ago social scientists tended to believe that, except for his paycheck, dad was dispensable. A single mother, perhaps with help from her mother, could rear children just as well. This attitude is changing as evidence accumulates that life without father can be perilous -- to kids and to their communities. Data on thousands of children collected for the Department of Health and Human Services show that: -- Kids from single-parent families, whether through divorce or illegitimacy, are two to three times as likely to have emotional or behavioral problems, and half again as likely to have learning disabilities, as those who live with both parents. -- Teenage girls who grow up without their fathers tend to have sex earlier. A 15-year-old who has lived with her mother only, for example, is three times as likely to lose her virginity before her 16th birthday as one who has lived with both parents. David Popenoe, a Rutgers University sociologist, acknowledges that while the social sciences can seldom prove anything, there remains ''a strong likelihood that the increase in the number of fatherless children over the past 30 years has been a prominent factor in the growth of violence and juvenile delinquency.'' A survey of nearly 14,000 prison inmates done for the Justice Department in 1991 showed that more than half did not live with both parents while they were growing up. Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Losing Ground, a celebrated critique of the welfare system a decade ago, argues that illegitimacy ''is the single most important social problem of our time -- more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, or homelessness because it drives everything else.'' When the number of fatherless boys in a community reaches a critical mass, Murray says, ''the values of unsocialized male adolescents -- physical violence, immediate gratification, and predatory sex -- are made norms.'' Testosterone, someone else noted, is the most dangerous chemical known. If the white illegitimacy rate continues on its current path, says Murray, whites will begin to experience the social breakdown now associated with some black communities. William A. Galston, an adviser to President Clinton on domestic policy, doubts that will happen. He points out that poor minority youngsters are concentrated in cities. Poor whites are more scattered, which reduces the potential for critical masses of troubled children. For now Galston seems to have the better case; there are no ravaged white neighborhoods comparable to black areas in Detroit or Newark.

REACHING a consensus on how to reduce welfare and illegitimacy will be about as easy as deciding how to reform health care. As a start, FORTUNE proposes focusing on a particular group in the welfare community. Think of them as the Maybes. About 4.7 million mothers receive AFDC payments on behalf of their children. The fathers are harder to count, because many have children by more than one woman. Let's guess there are four million. Conservatives tend to think of all eight million-plus as irresponsible. Liberals see them as victims. The truth is that these parents cover the spectrum of attitude and ability. Many welfare mothers find jobs on their own within a year or two and leave the rolls. Others are too troubled to hold a job -- or so intractable they refuse to work -- and a free and compassionate society is limited in how hard it can push. Government is not going to leave Shawn on an icy street or sterilize a woman who insists on having more children. Between the Easys and the Impossibles are the Maybes. They include the woman who thinks, ''Maybe I can handle a regular job''; the man who says, ''Maybe I can be a good father''; the teenager who says, ''Maybe I can wait for sex.'' The cost of reforming the Impossibles is prohibitive, so ignore the rhetoric that promises to do so. Government ought to concentrate on the Maybes. The ranks of Maybes are substantial, as a study by Laurie S. Zabin, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, demonstrates. She and her staff interviewed 313 sexually active Baltimore teenage girls to determine whether young women get pregnant deliberately. She found that only 5% wanted to have babies. The other 95% were about evenly divided between those who clearly stated they did not and those who were ambivalent. The ambivalent said that while they would be unhappy to learn they were pregnant, they didn't think having a baby would present a big problem. A striking finding in Zabin's study was that the Maybes, despite their ambivalence, got pregnant at the same rate as those determined to do so, and at a much higher rate than those who definitely did not want babies. Changing the minds of those determined to get pregnant is out of reach, but good counseling might swing some of the Maybes into the ''no'' column. How to convert the Maybes.

-- THE TEENAGERS. More than one million of the U.S.'s nine million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 get pregnant every year. Roughly half give birth; the rest either miscarry or have abortions. These pregnancies happen despite the fact that 93% of the nation's high schools teach sex education. About 375 schools from New York City to Los Angeles distribute condoms, often for free. Douglas Kirby, research director of ETR Associates, a nonprofit health education agency, says that because no one has done a definitive study of condom distribution programs in schools, there is no conclusive evidence that merely giving away condoms reduces pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases. (Neither is there any evidence that it increases sexual activity.) Sex education has failed in part because schools assume that if they provide students with birth control and basic information, the youngsters will do the right thing. That supposes 14-year-olds have the maturity to sit down by themselves and discuss what kind of contraception might be best for them -- and to follow through every time. ''Adolescents don't feel comfortable talking about their own bodies, let alone someone else's,'' says Marion Howard, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology who supervises a family- planning program for teens at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. In the Grady program, each of 1,500 sexually active girls under 16 meets every several months with a counselor to talk about contraception and to hear old- fashioned motherly advice. About 80% of the girls get through adolescence without becoming pregnant. The most effective female contraceptive on the market today is Norplant, six capsules the size of matchsticks that cost $365; doctors generally charge an additional $150 to inject the hormone-containing capsules into the upper arm. That seems expensive, but because Norplant is effective for five years, it costs 30% less than a five-year supply of birth control pills. Norplant is not perfect. Unlike condoms, it offers no protection against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. But it has a major advantage over most other contraceptives because it doesn't require discipline in the heat of passion. (Shawn was accidentally conceived at such a moment.) For that reason, Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore told the city's Laurence G. Paquin school for expectant mothers it could offer free Norplant insertions (along with other means of contraception). Currently, 26 of Paquin's 300 students are using it. One, Mary Morris, 16, and the mother of an 8-month-old daughter, started having sex at 12 with a girlfriend's older brother. ''I didn't enjoy it much -- no love and romance,'' she reflects. ''All sex did for me was screw up a friendship.'' At her mother's urging, Mary had a Norplant injection several months ago. Now she and several classmates are cheerful advocates of this form of birth control. Some of Baltimore's black ministers have denounced the Norplant program as genocidal, an attempt to keep African Americans from procreating. Schmoke, who is black, replies that Norplant is simply one method of birth control offered, not promoted, by Paquin. Corny as it sounds, some sex education counselors are also touting abstinence. Not only is abstinence morally unassailable, it seems to be making a comeback, no longer an embarrassing admission in many high schools. Although sex educators can't document their feeling, the ones interviewed for this story all believe that talking about contraception seems to have the effect of promoting abstinence. ''Perhaps getting kids to talk about contraception cools the passion,'' suggests Tom Klaus, a sex education instructor in Des Moines. The truth is that abstinence has been widely, if quietly, practiced throughout the sexual revolution. Statistics show that half of American males have intercourse by the time they are 16.6 years old, and half of females by age 17.4. Another way of reading those numbers is that half of all young women are virgins through their high school years.

-- THE MOTHERS. The number of single mothers on welfare has jumped by one- third in a decade. Benefits alone don't explain the increase because in real dollars a woman now receives 10% less, on average, from AFDC than she did in 1980 -- and 45% less than in 1970. But without a doubt, benefits keep some able women off the job. Annette Atkins lives with her daughter, Sasha, 6, in Chambersville, West Virginia, a small town southwest of Charleston. Atkins, 31, was never married to Sasha's father, a coal miner on strike, but he visits occasionally and gives them $50 a month. Before she got pregnant, Atkins worked with a highway department repair crew. ''They're dying to have me work again, and I'd be getting between $13 and $16 an hour,'' says Atkins, ''but it's not worth it.'' She would have to give up $201 a month in AFDC she receives on Sasha's behalf, $203 a month in food stamps, Medicaid coverage for her and her daughter, and the monthly $240 rent that the Department of Housing and Urban Development pays for her two-bedroom apartment in a tidy and cheerful neighborhood. Furthermore, says Atkins, ''To go to work I'd have to pay $300 a month for a babysitter and get a better car.'' That lifestyle rankles Stephannie Shadd, 30, a divorced mother of two sons who works a few miles away in Logan. Shadd puts in 60 hours a week as credit manager for the Heilig-Meyers furniture store. On an annual income of $20,000, she can't afford the $2,000 a year health insurance would cost her family. Women like Atkins come through Shadd's door often. ''They ask to have their credit ceiling raised because they're having another baby and they'll be getting an extra $48 a month from welfare,'' says Shadd. ''I have to do it because those are my instructions from management. But in the back of my mind I'm saying, 'This isn't right.' '' Maybes like Atkins need a shove. Her welfare should be canceled. But she needs some support. Both Atkins and Shadd should be entitled to medical insurance at a price that won't force them to choose between clothing their kids and taking them to the doctor. Health care reformers, take note. Charles Murray believes welfare benefits should be eliminated for every single mother, whether or not she has a job prospect. That would force her to enlist support ''from her parents, boyfriend, siblings, neighbors, church, or philanthropy -- anywhere other than government,'' says Murray. Take the case of Tabitha and Shawn. They returned to a two-bedroom household that included not only themselves and Tabitha's boyfriend but also Tabitha's mother, stepfather, and grandmother. Suppose Shawn had not brought with him that $600 a month in welfare checks. Murray believes Tabitha's family would have put more pressure on her not to get pregnant in the first place, or tried harder to match her with a better prospect. Murray's position is extreme. But in the past few months Washington has given ten states permission to try less draconian welfare reforms, several of them similar to what Clinton has in mind for his national program. Wisconsin, for example, will allow a family to stay on the rolls for only 24 months in any four-year period; the state promises to help recipients find jobs. Wisconsin also requires all teenagers in welfare families, including those who are parents, to attend school or else risk losing some of their benefits. A pilot project sponsored by Illinois and New Jersey in the late 1980s gives a measure of how successful mandatory work programs are likely to be. About 2,600 mothers in Chicago, Newark, and Camden were threatened with the loss of $160 a month in benefits if they did not go to school or look for a job. The program provided considerable support -- at a cost of about $1,400 a year per mother -- including child care, transportation, workshops, and phone calls to scold absentees for missing appointments. ''For the first time the women had rules that were consistently enforced,'' says Rebecca Maynard, a University of Pennsylvania professor of education who evaluated the program. Mothers penalized $160 quickly got into line. Results, though not overwhelming, were satisfying enough to make clear that we should keep prodding and aiding the Maybes. Over a two-year period the women in the program spent 25% more time studying, looking for employment, and actually working than those in a control group presented with neither threats nor help.

-- THE FATHERS. A generation ago a young man who got his sweetheart pregnant would have been forced to marry and support her. No longer. This shotgun is the only weapon in decline. Some teenage dads impregnate half a dozen girls, proudly put their signet rings on the babies' fingers, and then laugh at authorities who try to collect child support. You can't squeeze blood from a stone or a sophomore. A more typical father of an out-of-wedlock child is Shawn's dad, a classic Maybe. Richard Erickson, 20, hasn't married Tabitha Walters, but he hasn't abandoned her either. ''I would never leave my kid,'' promises Erickson. ''I love my kid.'' Without doubt he means it. But the prospects for the family are not great. Erickson has no job. He hopes to enlist in the Army, but the military does not have much room for high school dropouts. What often happens in such cases is that mom points out that baby hasn't stopped soiling Pampers, even though dad hasn't found work. Dad gets angry and walks out. She sues for child support. He tells the court he has no money. End of another deadbeat-dad case. It needn't be. The Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit agency that manages pilot projects for the government, recently completed an 18-month study in which it monitored more than 4,000 fathers of AFDC children, all delinquent in support payments. The fathers claimed they had no jobs. The courts accepted their stories but, by prior arrangement with MDRC, required them to make regular trips to an employment office for job and fatherhood counseling. Many of those who had lied and did have jobs could not afford to waste days at the employment office; they started paying child support. Of the others, about 65% showed up for counseling and training. ''They also talked with each other about their feelings for their own fathers, their fathers' failings, and how they might do better,'' says project director Gordon Berlin. Some found jobs and, for now, are paying support. It will take a while to learn how many of these Maybes remain conscientious dads. In the meantime, Berlin has noticed an encouraging phenomenon. The fathers in the program not only pay support for their children but visit as well. That's important because a father shows a child, especially a boy, how to fit into the community. Dr. Frank Pittman, an Atlanta psychiatrist, says in his recent book Man Enough that a father's role is not to make his sons more aggressive or to show them how to take what is theirs. On the contrary, his function is to define the limits of manhood. A boy doesn't have to be John Wayne. Jimmy Stewart is man enough. Without a model at home, children construct images of ideal men from television or from what they see on the street. ''Girls are likely to choose boyfriends who are violent and highly seductive,'' says Pittman. But at least girls raised by a woman can grow up to be competent in everything but their relationships with men. Boys come off worse. ''They don't have a clue to what it's like to be a man,'' says Pittman. ''They put on bigger and bigger macho shows, but they never feel like men.''

Converting the Maybes -- mothers, fathers, and teenagers -- will not solve the problems of illegitimacy and welfare in a hurry. What's appealing about the strategy is that it recognizes the value of a succession of small victories. A 10% drop in the number of teenagers giving birth this year would translate into 50,000 fewer babies born to women too young to care for them. That's a start.