The New York Times this morning has the most sobering headline I’ve seen in quite a while:

For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage

The gist of the article:

Once largely limited to poor women and minorities, motherhood without marriage has settled deeply into middle America. The fastest growth in the last two decades has occurred among white women in their 20s who have some college education but no four-year degree, according to Child Trends, a Washington research group that analyzed government data.

Among mothers of all ages, a majority — 59 percent in 2009 — are married when they have children. But the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change.

One group still largely resists the trend: college graduates, who overwhelmingly marry before having children. That is turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education.

“Marriage has become a luxury good,” said Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

The term “transforming family” is really a non-judgmental way of saying that most children of these women will grow up with no family structure. Single women without means may love their children, but they won’t be able to provide, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, what families should give the next generation.

The story belatedly notes a trend previously described by Kay Hymowitz and Charles Murray: college educated women who have a four-year degree get married before having children.  The real two Americas aren’t rich and poor—they are married families versus marriageless families.

Despite using weasel words such as “transforming families,” New York Times writers Jason DeParle (he is married to Obama health honcho Nancy-Ann DeParle) and Sabrina Tavernise acknowledge that children from marriageless families are more likely to be poor and have emotional problems. 

The liberal critique, the writers say, is that there is not enough money, while the conservative critique is that the sexual revolution and the pill are key (seriously, do you think they would have included the pill before the president managed to turn a debate over issue of religious freedom into one of free contraception, contraception being readily available to rich and poor?).

But I digress.

Surprisingly, the story gives both sides credit for having some validity. One of the points made is that fifty years ago, about a third of marriages took place because the girl was pregnant and the couple wanted to avoid social stigma. Today, there is no stigma. Government welfare programs have also given couples who live together and have children financial incentives not to marry. And in a society where fewer and fewer people watch their parents do the daily, unromantic things necessary to raise a family, more people romanticize marriage:

“Family life is no longer about playing the social role of father or husband or wife, it’s more about individual satisfaction and self-development,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

Isn’t everything about satisfaction and self-development today?

It strikes me that the big social issue of our day is the family. We live in a society where, at least among the non-affluent, marriage is about to disappear. The effects on society will be profound and ugly.

Marriage is not a luxury good; it is the bedrock of a prosperous and functioning civilization.