Rob Jenkins: Recognizing out-of-wedlock births as a risk factor for poverty

Rob Jenkins

Rob Jenkins

Jesus Christ famously said that the poor would always be with us. No doubt he was right about that, as well as about our responsibility vis-a-vis the poor -- namely, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

In that spirit, I'm sending a box of my old extra-large T-shirts to the Kardashian sisters.

But the fact is, in the United States today, poverty is largely preventable. It's simply a matter of knowing what behaviors lead to poverty and avoiding those behaviors.

In other words, poverty isn't like polio. There's no vaccine that will eliminate it altogether. It's more like lung disease or diabetes: most people can live free of it if they understand the risk factors.

For years now -- decades, even -- one of the primary risk factors for poverty has been having children out of wedlock. And yet that dangerous behavior not only continues, it's on the rise. According to a recent report in The New York Times, "about 41 percent of births in the U.S. occur outside of marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago."

Meanwhile, a separate study -- this one by the Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund -- found that "two-fifths of single-mother families are poor, triple the poverty rate for the rest of the population" and that "the majority of poor children are in single mother families."

Another long-standing risk factor for poverty is lack of education -- which also, as it turns out, correlates strongly with the out-of-wedlock birth rate. The Times reported that "less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent."

Clearly, for women, the formula for avoiding poverty is to go to college, earn a degree, and put off having children until after marriage. And since this formula would also remove millions of children from the ranks of the poverty-stricken, it would likewise benefit society.

I know it isn't necessarily that easy. I recognize that there are young women all across this country, living under deplorable conditions, for whom getting pregnant at a young age is not so much a choice as a matter of survival.

I also understand that many mothers are single due to no fault of their own. Most of them are coping as best they can with a less-than-ideal situation, and they deserve our respect and support.

But in most cases, having unprotected sex is a choice. Common, effective forms of contraception are available at little or no cost, and abstinence is absolutely free.

Somehow we've got to get the word out to our young women: stay in school and don't get pregnant, unless you want to doom yourself to a life of poverty, in much the same way that smoking three packs a day would doom you to a life of disease.

Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and college professor. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter@rjenkinsgdp.