EDITOR’S NOTE: The following address was presented to the Kiwanis Club of Augusta.
Last fall, I was honored to deliver the keynote speech for Children’s Week, an annual event sponsored by the Augusta Partnership for Children to celebrate our community’s children. While most, if not all of the Children’s Week speeches have historically focused on the positive aspects of our children (and there are many), I chose instead to use that occasion to draw attention to a trend that threatens the welfare of a large and growing number of children in our community and nation and, if left alone, will undermine the very stability of our society.
My interest in the topic was a reflection of what happens when a longtime volunteer child advocate enters a job that brings him face to face with the consequences of the decline of the American family.
In the shadow of the legacies passed down to us by previous generations, the baby boomer generation, of which I barely qualify, seems poised to leave our children and grandchildren with two very sad legacies.
The first is an unconscionable and immoral amount of public debt that our political leaders created, and unfortunately seem intent to continue to create, to satisfy the appetite of our here, now and me society. While that topic is best left to another speech, the serious public debt and deficits that we face offer a significant challenge to our ability to address the problem that I will discuss today.
The second legacy, and the one on which I will focus today, is the total disintegration of the American family over the last 50 years and the devastating economic and social costs associated with this trend. Folks, I have been actively involved in child advocacy in this community for over 25 years. I can honestly say that, in my opinion, this is the definitive child issue of our generation.
Let me briefly share a few statistics to illustrate my point. In 1965, at the enactment of the Great Society welfare legislation, 24 percent of black infants and 3.1 percent of white infants were born to unwed mothers. At that time, a young assistant labor secretary and later U. S. senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan authored a report, attacked as controversial then, that warned about the unraveling of the black family structure due to one in children born to unmarried mothers. If Sen. Moynihan were alive today, imagine how he would react to a number that is now 29 percent for white children, 53 percent for Latino children and 73 percent for black children.
These numbers clearly indicate that we have a national epidemic of out-of-wedlock births that is crossing race and economic lines. It has moved from the inner city to the suburbs. And let me clear up the common misconception that these births are primarily the problem of teen mothers. The truth is that less than 10 percent are occurring to girls under 18. These decisions are being made by adults -- primarily non-college graduates who have no plans to marry or have decided to postpone marriage but not child creation.
In America today, 53 percent of all children born to women under the age of 30 are being born outside of what has historically been considered the most stable family structure. We are deep into a crisis that is critically burdening our schools, neighborhoods, law enforcement agencies, economy and, if not abated, will produce dire consequences for our society.
In studying this issue, I have read a number of causes advanced for the devastating trend. Governmental policies since the 1960s, the secularization of our society and the loss of religious and moral influences, the entertainment industry’s obsession with promoting immoral and irresponsible conduct, and the lack of economic opportunities for large segments of our population are just a few.
While these factors and others have almost certainly contributed to this crisis, the truth is that despite our government’s expenditure of trillions of dollars of taxpayers’ money over the last 50 years, this decline in the traditional two-parent family unit has dramatically accelerated on our watch and we have a moral obligation to try to reverse its course.
You may ask why family disintegration should be a high priority issue in a world full of critical issues. This is a problem that is costing us dearly in economic, social and political terms.
Nationally, it is estimated that the country spends $330 billion a year on poverty programs targeting the children of unwed mothers or about $30,000 per family. Single-parent families are more than four times as likely as two-parent households to be in poverty. Research shows that children born into a single-parent household have low academic achievement, higher school dropout rates, much higher rates of criminal activity, drug use, incarceration, death and welfare use.
A very high incidence of child abuse and neglect also plagues these homes. A study from the late 1990s revealed that a higher percentage of single-parent families with children in a neighborhood results in higher rates of violent crimes and burglary. Contrast that to the finding that the percentage of low-income families in a neighborhood does not increase the crime rate. By ignoring this trend, we are condemning the innocent children of these reckless adults to a quality of life that none of us can imagine.
If these reasons aren’t enough to convince you, children of unwed parents are themselves at a very high risk for following the same path and becoming unwed parents. Over 90 percent of the defendants that I have sentenced over the last five years have been reared outside of a normal two-parent family. The economic cost of this is staggering when you consider that it costs roughly $29,000 a year to house an inmate in a standard federal prison. I have also noticed that practically all of the defendants that appeared before me that were part of a street gang prior to their arrest were products of single-parent households or households where they were abandoned by both parents to be cared for by other family members, many of which are ill equipped to assume this responsibility. The association with gangs is an almost certain guarantee that at-risk children will become a criminal justice problem.
The economic costs also extend beyond the criminal justice system. Just look at the shootings and other crimes committed in recent years at the monthly First Friday events in downtown Augusta. Does anyone think that the young people involved in these incidents are the products of stable, two-parent homes?
Listen, I am a great supporter and patron of our downtown. I work in the downtown area and regularly visit its restaurants, shops and other venues. While our downtown has made great progress over the last 20 years, just imagine how much better it could be, and how many new families would venture downtown, if we would earnestly begin to address the plight of these at risk children and the problems, both real and perceived, they cause.
If you think we can solve this with more law enforcement, let me assure you we can’t afford to hire enough law enforcement officers or build enough prison beds to solve this problem.
I HAVE ALSO learned from my courtroom conversations with defendants and the multiple mothers of their children that, for many people, out-of-wedlock births are now accepted as normal. When I question defendants and the multiple mothers of their children, I am horrified to frequently encounter pride over their offspring numbers. Now, let me emphasize that I am not criticizing all single-parent households.
Due to the divorce of my parents, I spent part of my teenage years in a home headed by a single mother. I watched my single mother struggle to provide for our family’s needs. I have the utmost respect for the many mothers and fathers who, through the circumstances of life, find themselves in a single-parent situation. Rather, the alarm that I am sounding concerns the reckless creation of multiple innocent children by men and women without regard to their ability to provide for the economic, social, spiritual and parental needs of those children.
Let me put a personal face on this group. Before I cite my examples, please know that I have not simply selected the worst examples to bolster my speech. I pulled these two cases from a single week of federal court over which I recently presided. The sad reality is that I regularly encounter individuals with similar histories.
First, there was a 27-year-old man, with seven children by five different mothers, none of whom he ever married. The only reason that he did not have more children is because he had spent a number of years incarcerated. The first child, he told me proudly, was conceived when he was 14 years old and the mother was 18.
The second man was 26, with six children by four different mothers, none of whom he married. In his case, two of his children were born on the same day to two different women. What is also disturbing is that these single moms rarely seek court ordered child support for their children and, if they do, the arrearages are in the tens of thousands of dollars. I regularly see men in their 20s who have never held an actual job, but have cheerfully created multiple children for which they have no intention of being responsible for their upbringing or marrying their mothers.
WHEN WOMEN and men produce multiple children without any expectation that the man will make a commitment to stay around and support the family – whether economically or as a needed father figure – these poor children are left to seek their father figures from drug dealers or gangs who are willing to fill the void. If we continue to ignore this problem, we are – as a community – choosing to abandon innocent children to these criminals.
So, what can we do?
First, I do not have all the answers. No one individual does. This is a complex problem that has been growing over multiple generations. The political and social hurdles are daunting. Many people believe that this is a problem that can never be solved. In a nation that has won two world wars, put men on the moon and leads the world in technological and medical innovation, I disagree. I simply cannot accept that we want to leave this powder keg to our children and grandchildren.
Second, we must stop shooting the messengers. In recent years, when well-known figures like Bill Cosby and Dr. Ben Carson have made public statements on the deterioration of the family, their reward has been vicious personal attacks by groups that have some political or other interest in blocking an honest public discussion on the causes and potential solutions to this crisis. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, copying a shock advertising campaign first introduced in Milwaukee with very successful results, has plastered the city’s subways and bus shelters with provocative ads designed to cause young people to consider the lifelong consequences of making babies outside marriage and plans to expand the campaign to social media.
Incredibly, that effort has been criticized by some, including a prominent reproductive health organization and a number of elected officials, as creating shame, stigma, hostility and negative public opinions. We need leaders of every race, gender and political party to join the effort and should celebrate their courage when they speak out rather than worry about someone’s hurt feelings or political agenda.
Third, I am not advocating that we develop more government programs that will require more taxpayer dollars. This government long ago outgrew our ability to pay for it without destroying our economic system; in other words, our government is broke. Contrary to what many in the political world may say, the truth is that we do have a spending problem that cannot be resolved by adding new government programs.
Plus, we have thrown trillions of tax dollars at this for 50 years only to see the family decline accelerate. Despite what may have been the best intentions, government programs seem to have fueled the problem. No, we are going to have to solve this problem by spending what limited dollars we have available in a more effective and efficient manner.
In Augusta, the only chance that we have to stem the tide is for the residents of this community to acknowledge that the continued destruction of our families will soon lead to chaos and resolve that bold actions are needed. We must stop asking our child advocates to bail the water and focus our energy on repairing the leak that has become a flood.
THIS CRISIS WILL require that our governments, nonprofit agencies, law enforcement, courts, religious community, business community and other interested individuals come together in an organized fashion and earnestly seek meaningful solutions. The road will be difficult and will call upon the intellect, courage, patience, persistence and resources of all involved.
In some cases, the difficult issue of accountability for irresponsible and reckless parents will need to be tackled. Why should we allow irresponsible people to inflict such pain, misery and economic costs on Augusta’s children and the community as a whole? We will need our legislators to take the initiative in Atlanta and Washington to find answers to this question and the courage to introduce and support legislation to implement these answers. Government programs that have the result of encouraging out-of-wedlock births must be altered or eliminated.
I also believe that, to be successful, we will need our local churches, synagogues, mosques, temples or other houses of worship to focus their mission efforts on the neighborhoods of Augusta that house single-parents and their children. Many local churches and religious groups, including my church, regularly send groups to Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa on mission trips. While I acknowledge the importance of international mission trips in both humanitarian and Biblical terms, I also worry that we are missing a great opportunity to address critical problems in our own backyard.
Additionally, religion and morals are the glue that holds society together. If the religious community continues its retreat from fighting for the moral foundation of our nation, the ultimate demise of our families will be assured.
In the face of such an enormous challenge, the Augusta community must have a platform from which to conduct a bold effort. I believe that such a platform exists.
When the Augusta Partnership for Children was formed over 25 years ago, the goal was to bring together those entities and individuals in the community who had an interest or stake in the welfare of our children and families.
This partnership was an early pioneer in Georgia in the area of collaboration and continues to be a leader in focusing collective efforts to address the problems faced by our children. While the partnership and its many partners have remained committed to improving the lives of Augusta’s children and have achieved much success in that regard, we are now at a time when nothing short of a monumental effort by the entire community will be needed to reverse this troubling trend.
THE BUSINESS, religious and professional leaders of this community, many of which are present today, are desperately needed to step up and offer your ideas, expertise, resources and time in this effort. We cannot continue to allow the “disconnect” between our community’s at risk children and the citizens present in this room to widen. That disconnect will destroy the kinship that we have known as Augustans and lead to disastrous consequences.
By bringing the best of our ideas to one table, sharing those ideas, having the courage to end those programs that are not working and the will to implement ideas that actually work, we have the ability to improve the family structure in our Augusta community. Whether we expand the Partnership to attack this problem or use another structure, the future economic and social viability of Augusta depends on our success in saving the family. We must succeed in this effort because the price of failure is simply too great.