More moms in Arizona skip marriage
Krista Quintana split with her boyfriend when she was three months pregnant with their now-4-year-old son, Jakai.
The 38-year-old Ahwatukee Foothills woman has a college degree, a well-paying management job in the financial-services industry and a strong network of friends and family. And she works closely with the father to ensure her son’s physical and emotional needs are met.
They take turns paying for day care and driving to soccer practice, and both go to games and other special events. When Quintana has to leave town for work, Jakai’s dad keeps him a few extra days. They text pictures back and forth.
Quintana is part of a growing trend in Arizona and nationally — unwed mothers having children. In 2012, nearly half of the babies born in Arizona had unmarried mothers.
There are a variety of issues fueling the phenomenon: more cohabitation, women marrying later, a growing societal acceptance of having children out of wedlock and economic challenges.
The trend is becoming a costly and concerning one, socially and economically.
That’s because for every successful single mother like Quintana, there are many more who struggle. Those women cost Arizona taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year in medical and social services.
State data shows Arizona taxpayers shell out more than $100 million a year to cover the delivery expenses of babies born to single parents. And the majority of women in Arizona receiving cash benefits and food stamps in any given month are unmarried.
There are also indirect costs.
Studies indicate that children born to unmarried parents are more likely to experience family instability, failure in school and behavioral problems. They are more likely to repeat the cycle of not going to college, struggling financially and becoming single parents themselves.
Quintana admits she and her son’s father have to work harder than most married couples to ensure their son doesn’t become another statistic.
“When you’re not sharing a household, you have to communicate more because it’s not right in your face,” she said. “It requires more effort, planning and compromise. But we’re still working together as a co-parenting partnership that’s focused on the best interest of our son.”
Community leaders agree something needs to be done to reverse the growing number of unmarried mothers. But they remain politically divided on how to accomplish that, focusing instead on idealistic goals with no set path toward accomplishment: restore the social value of marriage, make higher education more accessible and improve the economy.
In Arizona and across the U.S., the number of unmarried mothers has increased sharply in recent decades.
In Arizona, 45 percent of babies born in 2012 were born to unmarried mothers, compared with 18.7 percent in 1980.
Arizona’s numbers are higher than the national rate and among the highest in the nation.
The growth in single parenting comes as women from all socioeconomic levels wait longer to marry. The median age for a first marriage is now about 27, compared with 20 in 1950.
But while women with college degrees are also delaying having children — only 13 percent had children outside marriage in 2012 — women with high-school diplomas or some college are not. In Arizona in 2012, 70 percent of the unmarried women who had babies had a high-school diploma or less.
“What you’ve got is entrenched inequality,” said Kay Hymowitz with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative non-profit think tank. “It creates a caste system that Americans were supposed to be transcending. A family (structure) that is most likely to raise kids to achieve is falling apart among our less-educated people.”
The trend is also fueling an increase in public assistance for children born into single-parent households.
In 2011, 65 percent of all the babies whose births were covered under the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program, were born to unmarried mothers.
According to an Arizona Republic analysis, using the most conservative of multiple estimates available, the annual delivery costs alone for those babies totaled more than $130 million in state and federal money.
Of the 9,600 adults receiving money through the state’s cash assistance program in June, 8,023, or 84 percent, were unmarried.
Of the 563,170 recipients of the state’s nutrition assistance, or food-stamp program, 414,520, or 74 percent, were unmarried.
Both of these programs define unmarried as individuals who are divorced, separated, widowed or never married.
“It’s certainly a trend to be concerned about,” said Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of the Arizona advocacy group Children’s Action Alliance. “What families could do in prior decades on one income, they now need two incomes to have that same ... quality of life. And we certainly know that poverty for children is linked to a lot of difficulties, challenges and negative outcomes.”
Former Mesa Republican state lawmaker Mark Anderson was the force behind several successful bills to promote marriage, including using federal funds to create a state marriage education program and establishing so-called covenant marriages.
He said he doesn’t believe anybody, regardless of political affiliation, thinks the rising cost of unmarried mothers is OK.
“But if you ask them what to do about it, that’s another issue,” Anderson said. “It’s not simple.”
Conservatives say the solution is a cultural shift to reinstate the value of marriage.
“Increasingly, and most especially with this youngest generation, they don’t see marriage as something that has to come before children,” Hymowitz said. “It’s been very, very hard to get any consensus that this is a societal and economic problem.”
But more than a decade ago, the federal government did acknowledge the problem. And the resulting efforts to solve it have been unsuccessful.
One of the goals of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, authorized in 1996, was to encourage two-parent families. States, which receive the TANF funds to distribute, responded in a variety of ways.
Arizona established the option of covenant marriage contracts, which require the couple to get premarital counseling and can only be dissolved in limited situations such as adultery, abuse or abandonment. The state passed laws to require more education on the impacts of divorce as part of the divorce process. It created a commission that appropriated more than $1 million in TANF funds for a program to support marriage and published a marriage handbook.
Oklahoma in 1999 started the nation’s largest and longest-running state program supporting marriage, investing $10 million into the effort. But like Arizona, Oklahoma’s marriage rate continues to decline and its rate of unmarried mothers continues to rise.
Hymowitz said local and national leaders may need to be more blunt about the benefits of marrying before having children.
“We have to be willing to speak forthright about this and say, ‘If you want to give your child the best chance, here’s what you’ve got to do,’ ” she said. “But that’s a message that policy people are very, very reluctant to repeat. It’s very difficult to tell people how to make these very personal decisions.”
Anderson said it isn’t just the government’s problem to address.
“It’s not going to be successful to pass a law that says in order to have children you have to be married,” he said.
He said this is a problem that religious leaders, educators and the community as a whole need to address together.
“If you could educate high-school students and teach them relationship skills, you would reduce the amount of dollars now being spent addressing the effects of (unmarried mothers),” he said. “And these are skills that a lot of them don’t have. They didn’t see it in their own parents.”
Focusing on children
Others say focusing exclusively on the marriage status of this population misses the mark in a multitude of ways.
They point out that not all unmarried individuals are single. And not all single mothers are poor.
The marriage data doesn’t take into account same-sex couples, who aren’t permitted to marry in Arizona. Nor does it account for couples in long-term relationships without a marriage certificate.
“Having two parents involved in a child’s life emotionally and financially is certainly good for kids,” Wolfe Naimark said. “But marriage measures that only partially. We need to be really careful that we don’t equate unmarried as necessarily a single parent or necessarily deprived.”
Sara Jones, 35, of Tempe, and her boyfriend were together for several years before deciding to have kids. They live together, with their 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, and married in October.
She said her relationship didn’t feel any less permanent than those of her married friends. And many of them, she said, are now divorced.
The kids said they never cared about their parents’ unmarried status and joked with their mom about her different last name. They didn’t see any differences between their parents and the married parents of their friends: They live together, share parenting and both attend school functions and extracurricular activities.
Generally, experts say unmarried couples and financially stable single mothers are doing just fine. They are pushing to turn the focus toward assuring more children grow up in secure environments.
Accomplishing that, they say, will require more affordable higher-education opportunities for parents, more career assistance and more family-friendly workplaces.
“The goal is for children to have at least two parents involved in their emotional and financial support, but that can come in different forms,” Wolfe Naimark said.