It's one of the self-evident tragedies of our times, a predictor of myriad miseries afflicting individuals and society alike. And yet, to acknowledge its very existence is often condemned as old-fashioned, judgmental or worse.
Fortunately, Allen County Health Commissioner Deborah McMahan refuses to allow political correctness to prevent her from sounding the alarm about the problems posed by absent fathers – or from suggesting solutions she knows will make some people uncomfortable.
“How big of an issue is it? Our community has to put it in context,” said McMahan, referring to an analysis her Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health conducted last year that produced some sobering statistics but little insight.
What does it mean when 2,481 (36.5 percent) of the 6,786 babies born in Allen Country in 2011 were born to single mothers, or that paternity may never be established in hundreds of those cases, robbing children not only of their fathers' presence but even his identity?
By this fall, McMahan hopes to enlist the community in a war on fatherlessness through a “child health improvement plan” that would identify the affects of the problem and marshal the will and resources needed to fight it.
The feminist slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” has often been attributed to Gloria Steinem, but national statistics indicate the same cannot be said for America's children. As McMahan noted, single motherhood “is the single biggest predictor of poverty” – such children are five times more likely to be poor, in fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And that's just the beginning:
Infant mortality rates are 1.8 times higher for infants of unmarried mothers (National Center for Health Statistics).
Family structure significantly predicts delinquency and odds of incarceration (Journal of Youth and Adolescence).
Being raised by a single mother raises the risk of teen pregnancy and marrying with less than a high school degree (Journal of Family Issues).
Living in a single-parent home doubles the risk that a child will suffer physical, emotional or educational neglect (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics).
Fatherless children are twice as likely to drop out of school (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
Clearly, some children born to single mothers grow into happy, healthy, productive adults. Still, the correlation between single-parent homes and social dysfunction is clear. So why do so many otherwise intelligent, compassionate people insist on denying the undeniable?
It's not just post-feminism society's desire to blur traditional gender roles or marginalize the unique role men play in families. Advocates of an ever-expanding welfare state have a stake in silence, too: During the year before their babies were born, 43 percent of unmarried mothers receive food stamps, 21 percent received a housing subsidy and 9 percent received other forms of government subsidies. And, for women who have another child, the proportion receiving welfare or food stamps rises to 54 percent.
But of course the largest impediment to an honest discussion of the problem – and therefore a solution to the problem – is race. Nationally, more than 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock compared to 53 percent among Hispanics and 29 percent among whites. In Allen County, where blacks account for 13 percent of the population, they represent 34 percent of all unwed mothers.
Could there be a correlation between those statistics and the recent wave of carnage on Fort Wayne's streets? You'd never guess the possibility even exists, judging by the city's responses to date.
McMahan asks a question so obvious it seems provocative: What kind of behavior can a community expect of its residents? Although some will argue that children are better off without the fathers in question, she disagrees. Nobody talks about the value of shame anymore, so she talks of “transformational change.” Prevention is preferable, but if that fails, how can these fathers be trained, encouraged and forced if necessary to assume the social and moral obligations that accompany procreation?
Some services already exist; others may have to be developed and everything coordinated. Some states even use benefits as an incentive to marry instead of a disincentive. But first, she said, the community must acknowledge the problem and commit itself to a response.
"Cubbie" can rest in peace
In my Tuesday column about long-time Chicago Cubs fan Jeff Bultemeier, who was found dead Sunday, I mentioned that he had hoped to have a Cubs casket to go along with the tombstone bearing the image of Wrigley Field he bought in 2009.
Turns out he got his wish. Bultemeier, 58, had designed the casket himself and ordered it from the " 'Til We Meet Again" store last year. In addition to a photo of Wrigley, its images include tickets to heaven -- with his name on them.