The problems that face poor single mothers in the United States today are a cause for mounting concern. The number of single mothers is growing and current public policy is ineffectual in providing meaningful answers to their problems. To better understand the extent of the problem it is important to examine the historical antecedents and public policies that have led to the current impasse. Then with a grasp of the problem offer some suggestion to provide relief. "Unmarried birth rates and the share of families headed by a single parent have been rising for a long time now, and their growth is an important sociodemographic phenomenon. " (Bernstein, 1995).
Many single mothers are living at or below the poverty line. The problem crosses racial lines and is endemic across much of the country. As the cycle is self perpetuating it is ill advised for policy makers to simply turn a blind eye because it will not solve the problem. It is important to review the historical changes that have taken place in the last few decades. While this paper will not contend that divorce as a more readily available option today is the reason for the greater number of poor single mothers it will demonstrate that it is important to understand how the institution of 2marriage has formed the basis of much of public policy regarding single mothers today. Divorce is a historically new phenomenon.
For much of America's history the option for divorce simply did not exist. As Miller describes the roots of the institution of marriage: American divorce laws have early ties to English common law, which, itself, was very much influenced by the Church.
Marriage was viewed as a sacrament, a holy union between a man and a woman, to be ended only by death. Divorce was, accordingly, seen as an unacceptable violation of the sacrament. The State was expected to conform to the Church's teachings and to protect marriage by restricting access to divorce. As a result, legal divorce in the modern sense did not exist in England until the mid-1800s. The only way to obtain a divorce was through a special act of Parliament, which was passed in the late seventeenth century and permitted divorce only on the grounds of adultery. (Miller, 1992, p.
106) Divorce as an option therefore has only been available for a short time. Marriage at this time was an indissoluble contract and there was none of the freedom of judgment in relationships that people in western countries take for granted today. Things started to change in the post-war period. Some have claimed that more relaxed divorce laws are entirely the reason for the change but Burns and Scott argue that the changes were happening even before the newer more permissive laws came into effect: Although absolute rates differ from one country to another, the pattern across time is quite similar--low rates until mid century, a postwar jump, a plateau through the 1950s and 1960s, a rise in the later 1960s followed by a further rise in the 1970s, and a leveling out in the 1980s.