Unwed black fathers continue to be singled out for special scorn by everyone from conservative gadfly Gary Bauer (who blames them for crime among NFL players) to President Obama, who in 2008 told black churchgoers in Chicago that “what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child” and pledged to address the “national epidemic of absentee fathers.”
Over the past two decades, such views helped unleash a torrent of punitive policies aimed at raising the cost of unwed fatherhood. Yet the share of those having kids out of wedlock has continued to soar. In 1990, 28 percent of American births were to unmarried women. Today, it’s a record 41 percent, with much of the increase coming among low-income whites. More than a third of all children with single mothers live below the poverty line, four times the rate of those with married parents.
Conservatives have blamed the shift on cultural decay, immorality, and welfare benefits. Liberals have flagged the disappearance of well-paying manufacturing jobs. But when Edin started her research, it was clear that none of these explanations told the whole story. The disappearance of marriage was a true social-science mystery.
So she and Nelson decided to embed with their subjects. In 1995, while teaching at Rutgers University, Edin, Nelson, and their three-year-old daughter moved into a studio apartment near 36th and Westfield in Camden, one of the poorest cities in America. It was the beginning of two years of intensive fieldwork, followed by another five years of interviewing—or, as Edin puts it, “a rich opportunity for learning. Some social scientists will rent an office building and bring people in and interview them. But experiencing what other people are experiencing while you’re studying them is just critical.”