Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Single Mother Counter Ticks Away Chance For Important Discussion

With column inches in increasingly short supply, The Commercial Appeal uses its prime real estate on the front page to herald this bulletin – 1,024 children have been born to single mothers this year.

Actually, it’s not really a fact, because the number isn’t based on actual 2008 births. Rather, it is based on previous data trends that are extrapolated to the present.

In its own unique way, the “single mother ticker” is perhaps the clumsiest, most inept attempt to illuminate a serious public issue in recent memory.

It fails on so many levels that in the end, it actually obscures the serious debate it is designed to enlighten. Worse still, it devalues the importance of the research and insight under way at Urban Child Institute.

Another Line

It’s all too bad, because the counter runs the serious risk of becoming another unneeded racial dividing line in our city. To many African-Americans, this is yet the latest proof that white people just don’t understand how statements like this are interpreted when filtered through the experience of the majority race in our city.

It’s a little reminiscent of the confused looks that come over the faces of white guys as their comments about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are heard through the filter of gender and racial politics. Suddenly, comments that seem so well-intended and reasonable to white men are received as insensitive, demeaning or patronizing to women and African-Americans.

This seems to be the case of the “single mother counter,” which is seen by many African-Americans as one more symptom of the racial code language that hides beneath a thin veneer of civility in Memphis. To many, it also sends the unmistakable message that the white power structure still controls the conversation and discussion in our city.

All of this is lamentable, because all of the researchers at the Urban Child Institute are deeply passionate and personally invested in attacking the interwoven problems that trap too many of our fellow citizens into lives of poverty, dependency and hopelessness. Based on our reading of their definitive research reports (which are must reading for anyone interested in the future of Memphis), it is hard to conclude that all of those tables, graphs and rows of statistics boil down to say that single mothers are the greatest cause of Memphis’ problems.

Symptoms, Not Causes

More to the point, single mothers are more a symptom of the problems of our city than their cause. We understand what Urban Child Institute is really trying to say: children in families with two incomes have more opportunity, more access to educational enrichment programs and more support for their schooling.

We understand that we live in a media world where simplistic answers are emphasized at the expense of the in-depth discussion that is needed on questions like intractable poverty in too many of our neighborhoods. The “single mother counter” feels an awful lot like a glib marketing response to complex, interlocking public policy issues.

We know many of the people who labor at Urban Child Institute to get out the most reliable data in Memphis and who care deeply about the future of Memphis’ children. We just think that the CA’s counter does a disservice to the equality of their work, and relying on education rather than titillation is the best way in the long run to spark the conversation that we need on the serious web of poverty-related problems in our city.

While the Urban Child Institute is thankfully exploring tactics and cataloguing successful programs in other cities to address the residual damage of these trends in Memphis, it would be encouraging if Memphis at large would place more emphasis on good old-fashioned sex ed. Now, one of four of the births headlined on the CA’s front page is to teenagers. Any notion that state-mandated (and politically driven) abstinence-focused classes are the answer to this has been put to rest once and for all.

Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

According to the always reputable Mathematic Policy Institute Inc., students who participate in sexual abstinence programs are just as likely to have sex a few years later as those who did not, and one in four had a similar number of sexual partners as those who did not take the abstinence classes.

We know that as a culture, we have difficulty grasping the realities of teenage sexuality, but it is a fact of life. Thinking that abstinence-based curriculum masquerading as real sexual education is the same as doing something productively is inane. (How is it that as soon as people get into policy-making positions on this issue, their personal memories are wiped out and they act as if they weren’t doing the same things when they were teenagers?)

Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools are essentially teaching abstinence with some cautionary information about sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV. Of course, the real problem, according to our friends at Planned Parenthood, resides with women in their 20’s who have multiple children (too often with multiple fathers) and with little interest in birth control.

Maybe, just maybe, if we started talking to them about birth control and self-esteem in middle schools, there would be better prospects for slowing the trends highlighted on the front page. What educators report is that having babies is many times a validation of self-worth.

Get Real

Here, we wonder why we don’t get serious and hand out condoms and birth control prescriptions at home room each day? Or while schools unwisely focus on abstinence as the answer, how about designing cool birth control patches and sending health department educators to hand them out to students just off school property?

If the school board in Portland, Maine, managed to vote in favor of making contraceptives available to middle school students, only the imagination limits what we should be doing here. However, the most obvious is to put health clinics in every middle and high school and give the nurses the power to offer serious birth control services unlike the school clinics in the past.

In other words, if we’re really serious about the issue of single mothers, we’d be even more serious about the need to deliver comprehensive sexuality education and access to contraception.

All that said, births to single mothers seem more like a symptom than the fundamental problem of too many people living in poverty. More to the point, we have to come to grips with environments where violence is common place, where parental validation is sparse and where residents are sent the message every day – in poor schools, in poor housing and in high crime rates – that they are not valued by the city in which they live.

Sending A Message

Unfortunately, to many, that is the primary message sent by the CA’s single mother counter – just one more reminder to them that they are seen as a problem, that they are stigmatized and that they are vilified. It’s too bad, because it’s a lost opportunity to have a data-driven conversation that crosses racial lines and produces new understanding and a renewed commitment to solving these issues.

In the meantime, we hope the single mother counter will be short-lived. If it is, here are a few other things we’d be interested in reading on the CA’s front page:

• The amount of public tax money given away in tax freezes.

• The number of new jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

• The ratio of public money spent on poverty prevention and prisons.

• The number of students in Memphis City Schools who drop out or who get a degree but still aren’t proficient on state tests.

• The number of college-educated 25-34 year-olds who are moving out of Memphis compared to the number moving in.

• The increase in the average salary of Memphis workers.

• The number of members of the middle class moving out of Memphis.

• The number of new houses built in Memphis and the number of vacant buildings demolished.

• The gap between the average income of an African-American and a white Memphian.


Anonymous said...

Agreed the counter is an embarassment to the Urban Child Institute. I fear the desire on their part to create a public crisis is misguided.

However, I don't know that the current curriculum in MCS is purely abstinence based. I also don't know how it is actually being implemented.


Your point that there are any number of pieces of information which we might benefit from should we decide to actually have a public conversation is a very good one. As you know, I hope we can get there; and I wish the Urban Child Institute were not so single minded in their focus.

Anonymous said...

"How is it that as soon as people get into policy-making positions on this issue, their personal memories are wiped out and they act as if they weren’t doing the same things when they were teenagers?)"

God, isn't THAT the darned truth!

Harvey said...

Good stuff. The southern evangelical in me still likes the abstinence curriculum. I wonder are an abstinence based curriculum and "good ole fashioned sex ed" mutually exclusive?

Regardless, the "single mother counter" is a shame and an embarrassment. It should end yesterday. Seems like the CA staff should read "Amusing Ourselves to Death". They seem to have no understanding of medium as message.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent article. I have to thank you for bringing the real issues faced by Memphis (and the country) to light. If only the powers-that-be in the media would take heed we may be able to find some real solutions.

Anonymous said...

SCM usually has intelligent, well thought out posts. Unfortunately this is not one of them.

You are missing the main points as much as anyone.

You talk about issues such as public money for poverty and prison prevention, the drop out rate, salary levels, etc.

However, many of these problems are directly affected by the breakdown of the two parent family system here and elsewhere.

It has been well documented that children of single parents are less likely to receive higher education, more likely to wind up in prison, more likely to have out of wedlock children themselves and at a younger age, and more likely to be stuck in lower wage jobs than those coming from two parent families.

You can look on the surface and blame that on lower income which produces less opportunity. I agree that is true. However, you seem to refuse to look at underlying reasons that prove that a two parent family, as a whole, better prepares a young man or woman, on many different levels, to succeed in life. That includes better equipping an individual to advance educationally and economically.

This may offend some people but the truth is the truth.

I am not a moralistic, right wing, evangelical but a moderately liberal Democrat.

Instead of condemning articles such as the one you note in the CA, it might be more prudent to look at deeper studies that show what the affects of single (and especially teen) parenthood. Then look at some more innovative solutions that have worked in the past.

Anonymous said...

You don't need me to defend you, but anonymous 10:38 just can't hear what you're saying because he/she is so certain he/she is right. It didn't sound like you are saying that births to single mothers isn't a thread through all these problems; you're just saying that singling them out prevents a real conversation from happening and that it sets them up as the reasons why memphis is spiraling downward. When issues are complicated, people like the newspaer shouldn't try to pretend like they are simple.

b said...

When issues are complicated, people like the newspaer shouldn't try to pretend like they are simple.

And yet they do, time and time again.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 10:38,

I hear you, but I have to side with SCM on this one. Far from missing the point, SCM's entire argument here is that single-mom families are the symptom, not the cause. On the contrary, you seem to be saying, "if only there were two parents in these households, many of our social ills would be solved."

I strongly believe that such a perspective is way off base. If some guy fathers a child, then takes responsibility for it and sticks around to be a father, doesn't it stand to reason that this person is already acting more responsibly in other areas of their life? And if this hypothetical guy does NOT stick around, that's probably indicative of other anti-social behavior that he's engaging in.

Focusing on figuring out ways to keep this guy from having sex, or motivating him to get married will not solve our problems. We need to start thinking about the deeper economic issues that are driving people to care so little about themselves and their community in the first place.

Anonymous said...

"SCM's entire argument here is that single-mom families are the symptom, not the cause . . . "

This is Anon 10:38 again and I respectfully differ with you AND SCM. Single parent families are both a symptom and a cause. And yes, I am convinced that more two parents families will correlate to less crime, less poverty, and more prosperity.

I am no psychologist but the social ills of fatherless families has been well documented. The young men who grow up with a distorted sense of manhood or look to drug dealers or gangs to replace the lack of a male authority figure. The girl who latches on to the losers, has children they are not prepared to raise so they will "have something to love me," etc. etc.

So should we only be concerned about the breakdown of the nuclear family? Of course not. The other problems should be dealt with too. However, condemning the CA for mentioning it tends to stifle the whole issue.

I agree that the CA may simplify an enormously complex problem but SCM's response seems to imply that it's only a peripheral issue versus one that is in the middle of all the others.

Smart City Consulting said...


Yes, we do in fact believe that single mothers are a symptom, a symptom of an environment driven by the realities of poverty and an absence of choices. So, why not get serious about attacking poverty, rather than single mothers? And there are plenty of indicators that can show if we are succeeding in this.

If we do in fact reduce poverty, we contend that many of the other indicators will follow.

Right now, about one in four families are "traditional" American families. We are in a time of great change, and this change in and of itself is redefining what a family structure looks like.

The magic isn't necessarily in having two parents in the house. The magic is in having two incomes in the house and two caring individuals. It's the incomes that drive choice and opportunity. Whatever form that takes is often less important than the financial realities that flow from it.

Thanks for sharing your opinions, because this is a discussion that we need to be having in Memphis. A discussion rather than gimmicky single mother counters.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: We contend that the CA isn't really talking about the breakdown of the nuclear family and its aftermath or anything else of note. It's oversimplifying a serious discussion that involves so many other factors than one that makes single mothers the "face" for our serious problems. It's not a peripheral issue; it's just that it's not the only issue either.

Harvey said...

I disagree about the "magic" not being tied to a two parent structure. Two say that two individuals is the same as two parents is denying, in part, the bond and connection that healthy biological parenting provides.

When mom and dad can look at their child and say "that is my blood and I am going to love he/she and raise her as such", I think its better than well intentioned adult figures.

That reality doesn't mean that biological parents are always better in every situation. Surely not, but I feel that having your actual parents raise you in a loving manner is superior to having two caring individuals do it.

All that being said, I have no hard data to back up my statements. So, take what I say for what it is worth in that context.

Harvey said...

Please excuse my bad grammar and misspellings.

Anonymous said...

I would invite all of you to read "The Way We Never Were," by Stephanie Coontz. This should disabuse you of any fantasies you might have that we used to have two parent families and now we don't. George

Harvey said...

I'm reading "Huck's Raft" right now, which is a history of childhood in America. I agree that one of the great American myths is that of the stable family. We have never been a society that has overwhelmingly had two parent, "normal" families.

That fact standing, I still think two parent families are superior. That they haven't been dominate doesn't mean they aren't vital.

Smart City Consulting said...


We certainly aren't intending to denigrate two-parent families. Here's the thing: the trends are running in an entirely different direction, so trying to force people into some traditional model that doesn't seem to work for many of them any more seems to be an exercise in frustration. If people are making the choice to live in all manner of nontraditional families, we need to create the civic environment where they have the options and choices that allow them to succeed financially and emotionally. For us, that's dealing with the problems of poverty.

Smart City Consulting said...

By the way, Harvey, we're more interested in the quality of the discussion than the qualify of the grammar and spelling. Thanks for weighing in.

Harvey said...

SMC, that is good stuff. I understand where you are coming from. It makes no sense to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Still, and this is where my argument for any city wide programs may fall apart, I cannot separate my view of the importance of family from my conviction as a Christian.

It is silly for me legislate the behavior of others. Not only is it against my beliefs but it just plain does not work. And certainly if my Christian brothers and sisters disagree with me, that doesn't lessen their claim to the faith. Part of me just can't get over the idea that if we somehow all had two parent families we would all be okay. In reality, things are not that simple nor would a two parent enforced society be the answer (it would end up being more like hell on earth)

I am coming from a philosophical point of origin that says following the basic structure of family that God lays out through his relation to us through Christ, is not only in line with his wishes and helpful to a relationship with him, it actually has benefits on the earth as well.

It sounds weird to align myself with Joel Osteen so I am not going to. There is no such thing as the prosperity gospel. It just does not exist. Still, and I swallow as I say this, I think it sure would help a lot if we had more two parent families.

Anonymous said...

SCM, thanks for writing about this issue. i was curious because, at first, i didn't know how to feel about the counter, so i went by the site. the counter might be in poor taste but i do not believe UCI is aiming to degrade single parents or teenage mothers. you can view the counter many different ways, a welfare dollar counter, a drop-out counter, a future criminal counter but i do not believe it's the intent of UCI to highlight any of those issues.
in my opinion, UCI is highlighting a very real issue. to answer your first question: no; single parent households are not the reason for poverty. the measure of teenage mothers is important because teenage mothers in poverty are more likely than not to remain in poverty and undereducated. a teenage mother is less likely to make it out of poverty than a teenager that does not get pregnant before adulthood. teenagers in poverty are not having sex at higher rates than other teens; however, they are having children at higher rates.
there is a major difference between a divorcee as a single parent and a fifteen year old high schooler. the divorcee might be educated and earning high income so the economic effects of single parent hood are less likely to effect the education, upbringing and opportunities of her children. the same is not true for the teenage mother in poverty that is not educated herself and, according to, many studies, is less likely to further her education than a non-mother peer. the city of memphis has a 30% poverty rate and of that 30%, over 80% are black. if one of the indicators for remaining uneducated and in poverty is teenage and non-married pregnancy than why not highlight it? ask yourself this question if the roles were reversed what wouldn't we do to solve the problem?

on a side note i have found myself posting here quite often, so i should introduce myself. i'm edmund, good to meet you.

Aaron said...

Let's keep it simple.

Any great success comes with great personal sacrifice. Some of us sacrifice for our careers, our own pleasures, hobbies, religion, careers and some our children.

Regardless, of economic background or family structure if you put your children above everything else, then they will have their best chances of succeeding.

We have fallen short of upholding our children as our real success. One culture ships it's children off to daycare in order to sacrifice for their career . Another culture, where there are few role models and opportunities selfishly brings little children into a world that poorly equips them for the brutal realities that lay ahead. At the end of the day, both cultures are losing their children due to selfish behavior.
One child gets family welfare (eg. college or rehab) the other one gets government welfare or prison.
And by the grace of God, some successful children arise from these societal ruins.

The truth is simple-it's the change in behavior in response to it that is so painful.

Anonymous said...

All the comments must be from men, I'm a single mother, and it's hard. However I had one child, and his father was always in his life. Also I had a good job so my son was able to have a good education and opportunites. The point that the urban child institute is trying to make is that women should think about single parenthood, and the results of having a child or too many children when you are young, and uneducated. A child deserves more than just life, he deserves two adult loving parents who have planned for this child. The Smart Memphis column is of course politcally correct. This is not a race issue.