Fewer Guns, More Babies


Why has the rate of illegitimate births exploded in an age of readily available birth control? In the United States, between 1960 and 1995, illegitimate births soared from about 5 percent of all live births to 32 percent. Brookings Institution Senior Fellow George Akerlof and Federal Reserve Governor Janet Yellen argue that the real cause of the rise in illegitmacy is the decline of the shotgun marriage.

Akerlof and Yellen originally published their research in the May 1996 Quarterly Journal of Economics; a more reader-friendly version appears in the fall issue of the Brookings Review. Akerlof and Yellen estimate that "about 75 percent of the increase in the white out-of-wedlock first-birth rate, and about 60 percent of the black increase between 1965 and 1990, is directly attributable to the decline in shotgun marriages"–vows exchanged only after the woman was pregnant. Prior to around 1970, they argue, the stigma of unwed motherhood effectively prevented women from engaging in sex without a promise of marriage if a pregnancy resulted. "Men were willing to make (and keep) that promise, for they knew that in leaving one woman they would be unlikely to find another who would not make the same demand," they write.

Birth control, legalized abortion, and federal welfare benefits, however, changed the equation, say the authors. As bringing a pregnancy to term became a "physical choice" for the mother, marriage and child support became a "social choice" for the father. Akerlof and Yellen don't argue for limiting abortion or contraception; they also are against cutting welfare benefits to unwed mothers on the grounds it would "only further immiserize" children. Instead, they suggest tougher and better-enforced child-support laws, including a tax on men who father illegitimate children.