For more than 20 years, Dorothy Rhodes has seen the cycle continue in Taliaferro County: generations of children born to single mothers.
So when her county came up fourth in Georgia for percentage of births to single moms, she wasn't surprised.
"It just seems to be a way of life," said Mrs. Rhodes, who works at the county's health department.
Taliaferro isn't the only local county in the top 10. Hancock County tops the list, Warren is ranked third, Burke is ranked ninth, and Jefferson is ranked 10th.
The counties are part of the good news-bad news story of out-of-wedlock births in Georgia. While unmarried teen-agers are having children less often - Georgia's teen birth rates declined from third highest in the nation in 1992 to sixth highest by 1999 - single women 20 and older are becoming mothers more often.
And that's driving up the state's birth rate to unwed mothers.
Thirty-seven percent of all Georgia babies in 1999 were born to unwed mothers, up from 32 percent in 1989, according to the Georgia Department of Human Resources.
In the counties ranked in the top 10, at least 61 percent of births were to single mothers. In Hancock County, the top-ranked county, that number was 81 percent.
THE COUNTIES IN the top 10 are equally divided on both sides of the Fall Line: five are in southwest Georgia between Columbus and Albany and five are in a semi-circle around Richmond County.
The top ten counties are separated geographically, but they are connected by statistics:
THE HIGH NUMBERS of single-parent families mean more and more children are being born into the poverty cycle, said Doug Bachtel, a demographer for the University of Georgia's Family and Consumer Science Department.
"These kids tend to grow up and produce single-parent families themselves," he said. "A bunch end up in dysfunctional jobs or in prison - it's a cycle of poverty. They are programmed to fail."
Poverty also means some women might not have access to the educational programs and health care alternatives available to women in more affluent areas.
"The thing that is universal with all those counties is that they are very poor," said Marcell Johnson, the Region 7 consultant for Family Connection Collaborative, a state-funded organization that focuses on strengthening families. Region 7 covers 14 area counties, including the local top five.
While Richmond County does not rank in the top 10, more than half of the births in the county are to single mothers. In 1999, 52.4 percent of births were to unwed mothers - up 10 percent from 1990. Of those, 30 percent were white and 70 percent were black.
On average, one-third of the babies in the United States are born to single moms.
"Half of all the births in Richmond County are to unwed mothers, and that's where your future labor force is coming from," Mr. Bachtel said. "It means that half of all the kids in the Richmond County public school system are from unwed mothers.
"These aren't Murphy Browns; these are really poor, exploited women. These kids aren't going home to Carl Sagan coloring books and computers."
SO WHAT ARE the solutions?
Ms. Johnson said they begin with education on the community level.
"It's a community problem that has to be solved by the community," she said. "If the young person is ill-equipped to have a child and does get pregnant, that's not only her problem - it becomes our problem, too."
Representatives from the Augusta Care Pregnancy Center and Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services in Augusta agree the solution lies in placing more emphasis on abstinence.
"We truly believe that education has to start in the school system," said Mary Beth Pierucci, the director of external affairs for Planned Parenthood.
She supports a program called Abstinence Plus, which promotes abstinence while teaching pupils about safe sex.
"We do believe in teaching delay of the onset of sexual behavior, but we also give them the information they need when they do become sexually active," she said.
Susan Swanson, the director of the Augusta Care Pregnancy Center, said the emphasis should be on abstinence, not safe sex.
"What is responsibility?" Mrs. Swanson said. "Is responsibility using a condom or saying 'no' to sex before marriage? It can't be both."
Meanwhile, Mr. Bachtel is working with the Black Belt Initiative to develop a program to address rural poverty in the region that includes 11 states from Virginia to Texas.
"If you want to stop poverty, this is the place to start, but nobody seems to want to do it," Mr. Bachtel said. "I suspect in Augusta that there are more programs for dog obedience than there are for sexuality. I'm not saying Augusta is going to the dogs, but I'm saying our priorities are out of shape."
Reach Melissa Hall and Jason Smith at (706) 868-1222.
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