Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair
by Susan Sheehan
Pantheon, 174 pp., $21.00
Once again, single motherhood has been declared a national emergency. On October 29, 1993, the Wall Street Journal published an article, “The Coming White Underclass,” in which Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, called attention to the sharp rise in the proportion of white babies born to unwed mothers—22 percent in 1991. Murray went on to warn of the threat posed by unwed mothers of all races. “Illegitimacy,” he wrote, “is the single most important social problem of our time—more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else.”
As a solution, Murray repeated the recommendation that won him notice when he made it ten years ago in his book Losing Ground: abolish welfare. Do away with food stamps and welfare checks, Murray asserted in the Journal, and poor young mothers would be forced to enlist the help of parents, boyfriends, siblings, neighbors, churches, and the like, thereby raising “the probability that other mature adults are going to be involved with the upbringing of the child.” Some young women would think twice about having a child, while others would put their babies up for adoption.
To promote adoption, Murray argued, procedures should be liberalized so that children could be placed with new parents during infancy. As for the “small proportion” of infants and the “larger proportion of older children who would not be adopted, Murray called for a return to orphanages. “I am not recommending Dickensian barracks,” he wrote.
In 1993, we know a lot about how to provide a warm, nurturing environment for children, and getting rid of the welfare system frees up lots of money to do it. Those who find the word “orphanages” objectionable may think of them as 24-hour-a-day preschools.
The idea of reviving orphanages may well strike many readers as extreme, but Murray’s views were quickly taken up. The Washington Post ran no fewer than three columns devoted to his article. “Illegitimacy is the royal road to poverty and all its attendant pathologies,” Charles Krauthammer approvingly wrote on November 19. Four days later, Richard Cohen, in a column headlined “Dealing with Illegitimacy,” repeated Murray’s diagnosis of the problem but offered an alternative solution: Norplant, the birth control device. On December 1, William Raspberry, in a column titled, “That Disturbing Charles Murray,” wrote that
Murray begins where you are and drags you, often kicking and screaming, much closer to where you thought you’d never go. Even when you see where his train of thought is headed, you may fail to find a convenient stop at which to exit.
On December 2, 1993, an article in The New York Times, citing Murray’s Journal piece, reported with dismay on the diminishing stigma attached to teen-age pregnancy. “Pregnant Teen-Agers Are Outcasts No Longer,” the headline read. “In the ‘old days’ of the 1960’s, 50’s and 40’s,” the article began, “pregnant teen-agers were pariahs, banished from schools, ostracized by their peers or scurried …