Today’s (Feb 18) fascinating article of the rise of “illegitimate” birth in the US, like most of the literature on this subject, looks at the 1950s or 1960s for historical comparison, yet earlier periods, in other countries, offer important perspectives. Think of that wonderful line in My Fair Lady, when Alfred P Doolittle tells Prof Higgins that he can’t afford middle class morality. Eliza, after all, was illegitimate.
During the shift to industrial economies in Europe, rates of “illegitimate” birth rose to 30-50% in cities like London or Paris (say, ca. 1850). Just as in today’s America, the key dividing line was social class: the working poor did not marry in London (or Paris) because it made little economic sense. Studies of smaller cities, like Louvain in Belgium, show a similar spike (around 25%) in 1850. Illegitimacy declined sharply in almost all of these places in the second half of the 19th century, in large measure due to economic growth. Interestingly, the percentage of women working outside the home also declined in that period, in many areas.
As part of the shift to a world built on the individual as an economic unit (as against one built on a group, the family, however defined in the given space and time), marriage – which had traditionally been a union of two families, not two individuals – became less important. Societies responded, in part, with the cult of the family, developed strongly after 1850. The “reform” of the English Poor Laws in 1834 – on the grounds that allowances paid to unwed mothers encouraged illegitimacy and laziness – touched off a debate virtually identical to the one taking place today. We have interesting statistical evidence of rampant infanticide for illegitimate children in 19th-century England (1. infant mortality rates did not decline the way other age mortality rates did. 2. illegitimate children died twice as often as legitimate ones, in the first year of life).
In late 19th-century Paris, the district with the most workers (Belleville) also had the most births, most “illegitimate” [extra-marital should be the operative term] births, and highest rates of dechristianization. Not surprisingly, the middle class of Belleville married more often, baptized its children more often, and sought religious burial more often; it also had far fewer illegitimate children. Middle class morality for the middle class, who could afford it.
The radical changes in family structure and “legitimacy” rates over the last generation, tied as they are to socioeconomic indicators, suggest that we are undergoing the same sort of systemic change that took place in Western European societies in the middle of the 19th century. They entered the world of Industrial Capitalism; we are entering the world of Brutal Capitalism, which completely rejects the Liberal Capitalism of the period 1945-1980. In the US, the radical economic changes of ca. 1980 have created a fundamentally different social and economic system: extra-marital births among the working poor are merely one illustration of that phenomenon.
For more on Brutal Capitalism, see the postings in the category Liberal Capitalism’s Jaruzelski Moment