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Jewish World Review June 16, 1999 /2 Tamuz, 5759

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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A National Calamity --
SO NOW WE ARE FOUR, as along comes Jack, 8 pounds, 4 ounces, to join Tom, who for the record welcomes this development; and now I know what my job will be for the remainder of my days. I will be the man sitting behind the driver's wheel saying: Boys, listen to your mother.

This is a good job, and one of the better things about it is the nice clarity it lends to life. Fathers (and mothers) relearn that the world is a simple enough place. They discover that their essential ambitions, which once seemed so many, have been winnowed down to a minimalist few: to raise their children reasonably well and to live long enough to see them turn out reasonably okay. This doesn't seem like a great deal to ask for until you find out that it is everything to you. Because, it turns out, you are everything to them.

We know this not just emotionally but empirically. We know -- even Murphy Brown says so -- that both fathers and mothers are essential to the well-being of children. Successive studies have found that children growing up in single-parent homes are five times as likely to be poor, compared with children who have both parents at home. They are twice as likely (if male, three times as likely) to commit a crime leading to imprisonment. They are more likely to fail at school, fail at work, fail in society.

What, then, would we say about a society in which the overwhelming majority of children were born into homes without fathers and who grew up, in significant measure, without fathers? We would say that this society was in a state of disaster, heading toward disintegration. We would say that here we had a calamity on a par with serious war or famine. And, if that society were our own, we would, presumably, treat this as we would war or famine, with an immediate and massive mobilization of all of our resources.

Of course, this society is our own. Of black children born in 1996, 70 percent were born to unmarried mothers. At least 80 percent of all black children today can expect that a significant part of their childhood will be spent apart from their fathers.

Millions of America's children live in a state of multiplied fatherlessness -- that is, in homes without fathers and in neighborhoods where a majority of the other homes are likewise without fathers. In 1990, 3 million children were living in fatherless homes located in predominantly fatherless neighborhoods -- neighborhoods in which a majority of the families were headed by single mothers. Overwhelmingly, those children were black.

These figures, and most of the others that follow, come from a report, "Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America," released to no evident great concern this week by the Morehouse Research Institute and the Institute for American Values.

As the report notes, things were not always thus. In 1960, when black Americans lived with systemic oppression, 78 percent of black babies were born to married mothers, an almost mirror reversal of today's reality. In the 1950s, a black child would spend on average about four years living in a one-parent home. An estimated comparable figure for black children born in the early 1980s is 11 years. According to the research center Child Trends, the proportion of black children living in two-parent families fell by 23 percentage points between 1970 and 1997, going from 58 percent to 35 percent.

The disaster of black fatherlessness in America is part of a larger crisis. In every major demographic group, fatherlessness has been growing for years. Among whites, 25 percent of children do not live in two-parent homes, up from 10 percent in 1970. Overall, on any given night, four out of 10 children in America are sleeping in homes without fathers. (True, in the past few years, the number of out-of-wedlock births has begun to fall, but that trend is too nascent and too modest to much affect the situation.)

Some people think all of this matters. One is David Blankenhorn, a liberal organizer who learned realities as a Vista volunteer and who 11 years ago founded the Institute for American Values, co-author of this week's report. It is Blankenhorn's modest suggestion that fathers are necessary to children, that their abdication on a large scale is calamitous to the nation and that the people who run the nation should do something serious about this.

The man who currently runs it is not a factor here; he does not do serious. What about the men who would run it? Al Gore says nothing; he is too busy fighting the loss of green spaces in Chevy Chase. Bill Bradley preaches about racism but is silent about the ruination of a race. George W. Bush is full of compassionate conservatism, but he won't say quite what that is. And so on. History will wonder why America's leaders abandoned America's children, and why America let them do so. either.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


06/09/99: Stumbling Forward
06/02/99: Commencement '90s-Style
05/26/99: Will we ever learn? Clintochio is a lying ...
05/19/99: Comforting Milosevic
05/13/99: Short-Order Strategists
05/06/99: Four Revolting Spectacles

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