Today in Newton County, our news agonizes and debates over low SAT scores and drop out rates in our high schools, drop out rates and low performance levels in our community college, high teenage crime rates, and embarrassing rates of single mother and teenage pregnancies. All the while, we good citizens argue between the Board of Education, Board of Commissioners and Chamber of Commerce for solutions to treat the symptoms and ignore the disease; all this done from good intentions and a touch of fear to appear politically incorrect and expose a distasteful aspect of our society.
I will reach out and touch the "third rail" to risk destructive criticism in the hopes of exposing the real cause of these societal problems in Newton County - the degradation of the family unit.
In 2008, 42.3 percent of all births were to unwed mothers in Newton County [2011 Georgia County Guide, Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development].
These numbers represent units of society comprised of single mother households with children, not the solid family unit of a mother, father and children on which this country was founded.
In 2008, 18.1 percent of all households in Newton County were single mother and children households with no father present [2011 Georgia County Guide, Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development].
A new study additionally reveals that the majority - 53 percent - of births to women under 30 occur outside of marriage.
Rather than a teen birth issue, as is commonly thought, most unwed births are to women in their 20s. While the teen birthrate has declined in recent decades, the number of unmarried 20-something women giving birth has increased.
However, unwed childbearing isn't the norm for all young women. In fact, for the college-educated, it is still very uncommon. The majority of births are instead to women with a high school diploma or less.
The growing rate of unwed childbearing among these low- and middle-income women compounds the economic problems they will face. Eighty percent of all long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes, and children in single-parent families are approximately five times more likely to be poor than their peers from married-parent homes.
Additionally, children from single-parent homes face a variety of other challenges that perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Compared to their peers from married-parent families, they are less likely to graduate, have lower rates of academic achievement, have a greater likelihood of experiencing emotional problems, engage in delinquent behaviors at greater rates, and are more likely to become single-parents themselves. (Although about half of the children born to single women are born to those in cohabiting relationships, these relationships frequently do not lead to marriage, and children from cohabiting families do not reap the same benefits as their peers from married-parent homes.)
The increasing rate of unwed childbearing, as well as the corresponding breakdown of marriage, in low- and middle-income America is creating a divided society split along the lines of marriage and education.
Efforts to strengthen marriage are crucial to stemming the growing unwed-birth rate and rebuilding the weakening foundations of a growing number of U.S. communities.
Marital decline is a tragedy also because many lower- and moderately-educated women deeply value marriage. In fact, they are just as likely to say that marriage is "very important" or "one of the most important things" as are their more highly educated peers. These women also place a high priority on motherhood.
Yet, as David and Amber Lapp of the Institute for American Values report from their research on working-class single parents, marriage and parenthood have become disconnected. For example, one young unmarried father in a working-class community noted:
"It's kind of biased if you say you have to be married because you have a kid, you know. 'Cause I mean, that's not the point. I mean, that doesn't matter..."
If marriage becomes unachievable for all but the highly educated, then the American experiment itself will be at risk. The disappearance of marriage in Middle America would endanger the American dream, the emotional and social welfare of children, and the stability of the social fabric in thousands of communities across the country. Efforts to rebuild marriage are crucial to strengthening this most fundamental unit of society.
Nature gives us examples of the need for family unit structure even in the animal kingdom.
In Kenya, a herd of elephants needed the numbers culled and the government ordered the older bulls culled out of the herd. Not long after this was done a large number of young white rhinos were killed by the remaining young bulls in the herd. This same herd began a siege of crop destruction among the farms. It became apparent to the Game Officials that they had made a serious mistake by eliminating the older bulls.
They shipped much older bull elephants back into the herds. The older males immediately established a hierarchy with the herd, settling the young bulls and modeling strong elephant ethics. The result? Not one rhino death or outbreak of violence since the introduction of the older males. Young males need fathers, even in the animal kingdom.
This story illustrates both the need for leaders, and the tragic outcome when leadership is absent. True, this story was about elephants, not humans. But can any of us deny the similarity between this situation and our own society?
Specifically, we should take note of the impact created by the absence of adult male role models - mentors, in this "society."
We live in a world today, particularly in America, in which fathers are often absent from the family. Not only is this true in the case of divorce or death, but more and more, our society validates the concept of a "family unit" without a man present - without even acknowledging the need for a man in the "mix."
But let's take a moment to look at some of the statistics:
•63 percent of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (U.S.D.H.H.S. Bureau of the Census)
•90 percent of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes
•85 percent of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders are from fatherless homes (Center for Disease Control)
•80 percent of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes (Criminal Justice and Behavior, Vol.14 p. 403-26).
•71 percent of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes. (National Principals Association Report on the state of High Schools)
•70 percent of juveniles in state operated institutions come from fatherless homes (U.S. Dept. of Justice, Special Report)
•85 percent of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in fatherless homes (Fulton County Georgia Jail Populations and Texas Dept. of Corrections)
•Nearly 2 of every 5 children in America do not live with their fathers (U.S. News and World Report)
You and I can view ourselves as those in need of leadership, or we can rise to the challenge, to become the leaders for those in need of direction.
Basically, we can be part of the problem, or part of the solution. And, as always, there is the third group - those spectators who refuse to become involved, but rather, they choose to watch from a distance, assuming that they are not part of the problem, not realizing that their apathy and lethargy create the atmosphere which fosters such runaway "out of control" mob mentality. If we aren't part of the solution, it is very likely that through our own apathy, we are part of the problem.
But now, a word of encouragement and applause for the men who are rising to the challenge; mentors and fathers.
God bless the men whose lives serve as an example, a challenge to others, inspiring them to become the men and women who God destined them to be.
Well Newton County, do we have the courage to address this thorny problem through our churches, government social reform, educational programs, civic organizations and community programs or do we continue to treat the symptoms?
William Perugino is active in local and regional politics and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.