A sensitively written op-ed by Nicholas Kristoff, in Sunday’s New York Times, had the title: Is a hard life inherited? Mr. Kristoff relates the story of a childhood friend who has had a hard life. His mother died after choking on a bit of bacon. His father left home. This all happened when he was five. With his three siblings, he was raised by a grandmother, growing up in a “ramshackle home in a mire of disadvantage.” Despite having a “first-class” mind, he was suspended for truancy in the 8th grade, drifted through life in a haze of alcohol and drugs, while fathering two illegitimate children.
Mr. Kristoff’s point is that events beyond his friend’s control determined the man he became, and that there are steps society can take to help prevent such personal tragedies. He writes that a good teacher or mentor would have made a difference. Mr. Kristoff rues the loss of union jobs that might have created incentives for prudent behavior. He cites a higher minimum wage and a better education as steps that could be taken, but the starting point, he claims, must be empathy.
Empathy is indeed an endearing quality, but I suspect the problem has as much to do with shifting attitudes of behavior. As a society, we have embraced moral relativism. We have become more permissive. We have become hedonistic. Despite the proliferation of birth control and the general acceptance of abortion, the number of children born out of wedlock has soared. In 1965, less than 10% of all births were to women out of wedlock. Today it is 41%, and the numbers continue to rise. In 1965, the percentage of White children and Black children born to unmarried women were, respectively, 3.1% and 24%. Today, those numbers are 18% and 72%. “Shotgun” weddings have gone the way of the Dodo Bird. Granted, about 58% of single-mother births are to cohabitating couples, many of whom will marry. Nevertheless, a moral sense has been lost.
While Mr. Kristoff’s childhood friend may have suffered from problems impossible to readily treat, the issue Mr. Kristoff raises is one of priorities. He suggests empathy as the first line of defense, an important component, but not sufficient, in my opinion, to address the problem. Keep in mind, changes in the way we live have caused us to become disconnected from our community, as Robert Putnam detailed in his book, Bowling Alone. Suburbs are less personal in nature than villages. More women work than ever before – and both men and women work longer hours – leaving less time to volunteer. In cities, fund raising extravaganzas have replaced the more democratic concept of volunteering one’s time. In national political campaigns, raising money via $30,000-a-plate-dinners – afforded only by the few – has replaced grassroots efforts of door-to-door solicitations. We give of our money, but not of our time. The contagion of computers and hand-held devices has distracted us from the time necessary to participate in our children’s schools. We have become more self-absorbed. We have turned over most of the care for the indigent to public officials, blindfolding the rest of us to our communities’ needs.
With an understanding that “Big Brother” will be there when we need him, we have forsaken personal responsibility. Immediate gratification has replaced looking to the horizon. We protest for the right of women to receive free birth control, but ignore the fact that single-motherhood (which has increased, despite a proliferation of myriad birth control methods) too often leads to poverty, drug use and crime. We march for gay rights, yet statistics tell us the surest way to reduce a child’s chance of living in poverty is to have her, or him, raised in a traditional family.
None of this is meant to condemn women’s rights or gay rights. I am neither sexist nor homophobic. People should be free to live the lifestyles they choose. But, in regard to children, we need a renewed emphasis on the importance of family. We need opinion leaders (especially those idolized by the young) to speak to the value of two-parent households – a father and a mother. Forty-five percent of all children living with single mothers live in poverty, versus 13% of children living with both parents. Using statistics from the U.S. Census, the Heritage Foundation determined that being raised in a family with a father and mother reduces a child’s chances of living in poverty by 82%. Marriage is the best antidote to poverty. It should be celebrated, not trivialized or demeaned.
We will never to be able to solve every problem, help every addict, or fix every broken home. It may not have been possible to help Mr. Kristoff’s friend without very expensive professional assistance. But we should provide all people the tools to make their lives better, and I don’t mean increasing transfer payments or expressing empathy. I mean teaching children values in schools that can be brought home. Show them by example. It is only right that President Obama and Mayor De Blasio address NOW (National Organization for Women) and LGBTA (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender Alliance). But, as they do, they should also note that they have entered into traditional marriages, because of love for their spouse and for the sake of their children.
Young people from time immemorial have looked for heroes, to those whose lives they would like to emulate. In years gone by, we looked to professionals in our communities, lawyers and doctors, athletes and firemen, druggists and merchants, teachers and policemen. Today’s youth is more likely to look at the entertainment field, including the culturally void like gangsta rap. They watch their sports heroes, many of whom set good examples, but some that do not. Shocking audiences has always been a way of getting attention when one is on stage or the field, but that’s where it should remain. Instead, the behavior of many entertainers has become more abhorrent off-stage than on – and promoted extensively by the media. Young people are vulnerable and easily influenced, not realizing, or ignoring, the fact that money protects their idols. In attempting to imitate lives they can never lead, they too often destroy their own.
Millions of people, like Mr. Kristoff’s friend, are in need. A few may just be “bad seeds,” beyond redemption. But most can be helped. Schools that emphasize values, as well as skills, are critical. A return to some form of national service – whether military or civilian – would add purpose to a young person’s life. Encouraging personal involvement in one’s community would help. Empathy is important. But our biggest priority should be to emphasize the importance of marriage, its focus on the future, the commitment it takes and the stability it provides our children. People point out that a good marriage requires luck. It does, but it also demands hard work and selflessness.
We should think first of children, for they are our priority, our legacy and our nation’s future.