Not Orphanages or Prisons, but Responsible Fathers

David Blankenhorn, Los Angeles Times, 12/19/1994

The proposal to build more orphanages is similar to our current strategy of building more prisons. Both ideas assume that more brick-and-mortar structures, staffed by public or quasi-public employees, can fill the vacuum in our society created by the growing collapse of parental capacity and the disintegration of the married-couple child-raising unit. Both, in short, are strategies for rescue and quarantine. Both are aimed largely at the growing ranks of fatherless children in our society.

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Subjects: Family, Fatherhood

More by: David Blankenhorn

The proposal to build more orphanages is similar to our current strategy of building more prisons. Both ideas assume that more brick-and-mortar structures, staffed by public or quasi-public employees, can fill the vacuum in our society created by the growing collapse of parental capacity and the disintegration of the married-couple child-raising unit. Both, in short, are strategies for rescue and quarantine. Both are aimed largely at the growing ranks of fatherless children in our society.

Liberals, in my view, have no right to profess outrage at the idea of orphanages, as if current living conditions for millions of our children constituted anything other than unconscionable cruelty. Nor do conservatives have any business discussing this proposal as part of a triumphant, in-your-face political rhetoric, as if reopening orphanages in the United States at the close of this century constituted anything other than an admission of failure.

Moreover, before we decide simply to accept the trend of family fragmentation, while concerning ourselves only with warehousing some of its consequences, we would do well to consider the recent experience of the Hennepin County, Minn., Board of Commissioners. Earlier this year, the board drafted a "vision statement" to identify priorities for the future. The document called for a community "where healthy family structure is nurtured and fewer children are born out of wedlock." This goal produced what the Minneapolis Star Tribune termed "a big ruckus." A reporter from the newspaper summed up what many local leaders were saying about the commissioners and their idea: "Exclusionary. Judgmental. Intolerant. Offensive. Stigmatizing. Degrading. Archaic."

An assistant parks commissioner was outraged: "Why is this statement here? Why are you pointing fingers?" The county's community health director argued that "we have a lot of single parents who work here. A lot of them feel it was shaming to them as single parents."

A lesbian leader chastised the commissioners for "discounting" gay and lesbian parents. A pastor said that the real issue was jobs, not marriage. A United Way leader said that the real issue was how to "nurture" children, not "how people choose to configure themselves." A state fiscal analyst told the commissioners that "there are a lot of good single-parent families and there are a lot of bad two-parent families, and you're not going to change that."

In the midst of this firestorm, the commissioners, or at least some of them, insisted that the county's escalating rate of unwed childbearing – about 27% in 1992 – was causing or aggravating problems from child poverty to infant mortality, thus lowering the quality of life for everyone in the county. Their message was simple: We need to change our minds on this issue. Moreover, the commissioners hoped that the new goal would help them refocus policy priorities. The traditional goal had been to ameliorate consequences of trend. Now there was an additional goal: to reverse the trend.

Two points: First, if you want to say something controversial, say that every child deserves a father and that unwed childbearing is wrong. Second, the Hennepin County vision statement ignited and gave shape to a serious local debate about the possibility of recovering the fatherhood idea. That possibility concerns not just the politics of Hennepin County, but the future of the nation. It is time for all of us to consider this. Perhaps we can even agree that, as a national strategy for reversing the decline of child well-being, the fatherhood idea is far more consistent with the better angels of our nature than either the prison idea or the orphanage idea.

This article originally appeared here.

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