By Joel Salcido for USA TODAY
Picture on the right: Mandatory class: Austin's Akins High School health class address the realities, cost and consequences of being a teenage parent. The program is mandated in health classes for Texas High School students.
What’s the matter with kids today? A great deal more than you might realize.
One-third are overweight or obese. Nearly a third drop out or can't finish high school in four years. All told, 75% are in such a poor state that they are ineligible for military service for reasons ranging from health to drugs to criminal records to lack of education.
Last month came bad news about the rest:23% of those who try to enlist fail the basic entrance exam.
Dismayed military leaders and education reformers are quick to blame failing schools, and they're right. But there's a deeper issue in play as well — one that gets far too little attention.
ANOTHER VIEW: Focus on early education
In 2009, 41% of children born in the USA were born to unmarried mothers (up from 5% a half-century ago). That includes 73% of non-Hispanic black children, 53% of Hispanic children and 29% of non-Hispanic white children. Those are not misprints.
Some children of unmarried parents, of course, turn out just fine, particularly if the parents are economically secure or in committed, long-term relationships, or if the single parent is particularly strong and motivated. And as married parents will tell you, wedlock does not guarantee untroubled kids.
Even so, evidence is overwhelming that children of single mothers — particularly teen mothers — suffer disproportionately high poverty rates, impaired development and low school performance.
A long-term study by researchers from Princeton and Columbia Universities who've followed the lives of 5,000 children, born to married and never-married mothers in 20 urban centers, is the latest to reach that conclusion, and it sheds light on the reasons.
A large majority of the never-married mothers had close relationships with a partner when their child was born. But by the time the child was 5, most of the fathers were gone and the child had little contact with him. As many of the mothers went on to new relationships, the children were hampered by repeated transitions that did more harm to their development.
These "fragile families" are not a new phenomenon. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Labor Department official and later a prominent senator, rang alarm bells when unmarried births in the black community were nearing 24%. (The rate among white mothers was about 3% then.) But his paper on the subject ignited a furor, particularly among fellow liberals and civil rights leaders, who charged him with racism and blaming the victim.
Today, the 1965 numbers look quaint. Yet despite the soaring statistics, the problem never gets the profile it deserves.
Many on the right focus on marriage as the answer, and surely that is a big part of it. Single-parent success stories aside, reduced commitment is no virtue. On the left, the tendency is to see poverty as the villain, and just as surely, fighting its causes is also part of the answer. So is improving schools.
But so far, no one's answers seem to be working. Even as school programs have cut into teen pregnancy rates, more babies are being born to unmarried women in their 20s. In 2009, for the first time since the Census began tallying marriages, the proportion of never-married Americans ages 25 through 34 exceeded those who had been married.
There are no easy ways to reverse these trends. Anything that promotes stability in children's lives can help. But this much is clear: When 41% of babies born in the USA have unwed parents and most children reach adulthood with serious problems, more attention must be paid.