Wheeler: Helping children is worth the risk

An astonishing 41 percent of all births in the United States these days are to unmarried women, and demographic trends show that number is going nowhere but up.

Mitch Silver, Raleigh's planning director, tracks such data so that the city will not be caught in a crisis. Family patterns dictate housing patterns, he told N&O staffers this week, and those patterns dictate tax collections, whose amounts affect how governments can pay for transit needs, schools and a whole raft of other necessities.

That our future will be populated by even more children born to the unmarried is frightening, given how many studies show that the majority of unmarried mothers are poorly educated and that their children are more likely to live in poverty, drop out of school and go on to have out-of-wedlock babies themselves.

We could talk for hours about the genesis of this birth trend. What we need, however, is a revelation on how to reverse it - especially in light of how many people are plain fed up with having their tax dollars go to support other people's children.

Last week, I wrote about the need to expand pre-kindergarten programs in our state, saying that helping at-risk children succeed in school is the best way to put a wrench in the poverty cycle. The most-repeated response was that "throwing more money" at the problem is not the answer; parents must be held responsible.

Who can't agree that parents should be responsible for raising their own children, for housing them, feeding them, reading to them, snuggling them, preparing them for school, cherishing them?

And when they don't?

It saddens me how many people seem willing to stand with arms crossed and cluck to faultless children in distress, "Tough luck, kid. You lost the parent lottery."

Some of my Facebook friends commented on the column. One said: "From my enlightened daughter who will graduate from Carolina with a degree in public policy, with a concentration in education policy ... 'there is no program out there that empowers the child without enabling the parents.' We have to hold parents responsible for some part of child rearing."

I'd be glad to do that. Tell me how, I said.

An online commenter said: "If we are going to spend the money to try to fix the kids at school, we have to make the changes needed to start fixing the families they go home to every day."

Amen. Absolutely. Tell me how.

In the absence of any workable ideas on how to "fix" failing families, our focus has to be on offering at-risk children opportunities to choose paths that lead out of poverty. All of those paths begin with succeeding in school.

Empowering a child now, even at the risk of "enabling" an irresponsible parent, can mean one fewer dropout later, one fewer pregnant teen, one fewer prisoner, one fewer student needing expensive remediation, one fewer Medicaid patient, one more productive citizen, one more taxpayer, one more good neighbor, and one more good parent having no at-risk children.

See how that works?