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When sociologist Kathryn Edin set out to discover why so many young, poor, single women choose to raise a family alone, she went straight to the source: Camden, the poorest city in New Jersey.

Edin and her family lived in Camden for 2 1/2 years so she could understand the phenomenon from the intimacy of the front steps and the corner store. What she found was a subculture that scrambles liberal and conservative stereotypes and turns middle-class morality and expectations inside out.

The teenagers who put motherhood before marriage -- before even high school graduation -- become pregnant not because they lack contraception, or access to abortion, or even access to jobs, though economic deprivation does play a role. They don't give birth simply for a larger welfare check.

They have children to give meaning, structure, purpose and love to their lives, in the only way they know how. Marriage is revered but rarely attained and largely irrelevant. Men are untrustworthy and more trouble than they're worth.

"These bleak situations create a drive for meaning and identity that a middle-class person can't understand," says Edin. "I didn't understand it until I lived in Camden. We treat teen pregnancy prevention as just handing out condoms. It's not about birth control. It's really about meaning, and we're going to have to deal with that."

Indeed, we are. As the federal government spends hundreds of millions of dollars to encourage healthy marriages among the poor, the work of Edin, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleague Maria Kefalas, a sociologist at St. Joseph's University, shows why there is a broader social stake in reversing this debilitating trend.

The two women spent years in disadvantaged white, African American and Hispanic communities, collecting research for their new book, "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage." Their in-depth interviews with 162 single mothers elicited stories of responsibility, struggle and redemptive love. But they also showed that the decoupling of marriage and child-rearing, decades in the making, is nearly complete in these neighborhoods.

Not only has the shame of bearing a child out of wedlock disappeared, but pregnancy, even when the mother is still a child herself, is cause for communal celebration. A sullen, rebellious teen will be welcomed back into the fold when she presents a new baby, with motherhood her ticket to maturity, competence and acceptance.

If that's the route to happiness and self-fulfillment, why should the rest of society care? Because there's a terrible cost -- a cost evidenced in the concentration of poverty, crime, unemployment and drug abuse in these areas. The mothers' personal fulfillment cannot compensate for the social dysfunction they create by raising children with no fathers and little chance to break the cycle of poverty and despair.

To encourage marriage and stability, men and women in these communities need to feel as economically stable as they did when factories dotted the landscape and working-class respectability was possible. But they also need help from civic leaders, churches and, yes, the government to develop the relationship skills that have atrophied over generations of single mothers and absent fathers, leaving children with no idea of what it takes to create and keep a happy marriage.

Marriage must again have meaning. Every child, even a poor child, deserves to be raised by a mother and father, or the healthiest equivalent available, and the institution of marriage is still the best way to ensure that happens.