Every Sunday Elias Loera stands behind a pulpit made from motorcycle parts and preaches family values to the people of Fresno. He rails against sinful living and neglectful fathers, yet is careful not to offend. Mr Loera reckons more than half of the women in his almost entirely Hispanic congregation are single mothers. He tries to avoid speaking of "father God", so dismal are many people's experiences with fathers in this struggling Californian city.
Whether Cuban, Mexican or Puerto Rican, most Latinos revere la familia. But the Hispanic family is changing. In the past ten years the birth rate among unmarried Latinas has risen from 89 to 100 per 1,000. It is now much higher than the rate among black or white women (see chart). Late last year came a significant but little-noticed announcement: probably for the first time, half of all Hispanic children in America were born out of wedlock.
The Latino family is not in such a dire state as the black family, where 71% of children are born to single mothers. Yet the gap appears to be closing. In 1995 the unmarried teenage birth rate for Latinas was 20% lower than the rate for blacks. It is now 12% higher. This is not just a worry for socially-conservative preachers. More than half of all young Hispanic children in families headed by a single mother are living below the federal poverty line, compared with 21% being raised by a married couple.
Many blame these changes on the decay of traditional mores. Ed Moreno, Fresno's public-health officer, points to the enormous differences between recent immigrants from rural areas-at the moment, the city is seeing an influx from the Mexican state of Oaxaca-and American-born Latinos. The new arrivals rule their children with an iron hand. Among them teenage pregnancies are rare and often followed by marriage, sometimes at the point of a metaphorical shotgun.
By the second or third generation such old-fashioned attitudes are generally forgotten. Among the poor, cohabitation is seen as normal and single parenthood merely regrettable. Research by Wendy Manning of Bowling Green State University and others shows that unmarried Mexican-American couples who have children while living together are slightly more likely to break up than are blacks or whites in similar circumstances.
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