There's an ad campaign running on billboards all over the city right now. In it, a nonprofit organization pleads with high school students to stay in school and graduate.
The billboards feature a hopeful-looking young woman. Most studies show that failure to attain a diploma is the leading cause of poverty in America. So she needs your encouragement to graduate, the ad says.
At one time or another, there's been a public service announcement campaign for just about everything that ails us in this country, no matter how trivial. Don't drink and drive, don't smoke, don't do drugs, don't set forest fires, don't litter, recycle, fight pollution, spay and neuter your pets, put the baby to sleep on his back, shred your account statements.
But on the No. 2 cause of poverty in this country, the one that impacts over a third of our children, there is dead silence. The girl in the Charlotte ad campaign can get her high school diploma, but if she has children out of wedlock, odds are that she will live in poverty anyway, as will her children. And no one is talking about it.
Forty percent of the babies born in Mecklenburg County last year were born to single moms. It's a statistic that failed to generate a single headline here, but one that will have enormous social and economic implications for our future. The national average now stands at a record 38.5 percent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in a press release a few weeks ago.
A heart-stopping 58 percent of births to women between the ages of 20 and 24 were non-marital in 2006, the most recent year the CDC has tracked. In 1990, that number was 37 percent.
Numbers like that indicate that this situation cannot be addressed with a public service campaign reminding teens to use contraceptives. In North Carolina, the teen pregnancy rate has fallen by almost half since the early 1990s. Though there was recently a small uptick that has gotten a lot of media attention, teen pregnancy is not driving our boom in out-of-wedlock births, and neither is a lack of understanding of birth control options.
The problem is a cultural one. When 31 percent of births to women ages 25 to 29, an age group that should know better in the birth control department, are now out of wedlock, you can only conclude that much of this is deliberate. Many women, and men too, are choosing to have children outside of marriage.
This is a disaster for their offspring. According to Census data, only 10 percent of American kids living in two-married-parent families live in poverty while over half of children born to single mothers do. The poverty rate for cohabitating parents is only slightly lower than it is for single moms, so merely living together without a marriage certificate doesn't appear to be enough to solve the problem.
Depending on the study, these children are two to three times as likely to wind up in jail or drop out of school. And their numbers are growing. The 38.5 percent out-of-wedlock birth rate the CDC reported this year is a seven percent increase over the previous year.
This is also a disaster for their parents. According to a study by the National Center for Policy Analysis, just 8.6 percent of unmarried adults with no children live in poverty. The study also found nearly 80 percent of children living in long-term poverty live with a single parent.
So where is the public service campaign against out-of-wedlock births? The one where we encourage the young woman in the drop-out ads to get a diploma and put off childbearing until she is married?
The problem is that illegitimacy in this country is still viewed through the lens of sex and morality. It is widely considered to be a lifestyle choice, the natural product of cohabitating, and thus falls under the protection of political correctness.
That has got to change. We must start viewing out-of-wedlock birth as an economic issue, in much the same way we view failure to graduate.
Over the past year, the county and the state have spent tens of millions of dollars on drop-out prevention. It was one of the major issues in the governor's race. But no one is talking about what will happen four years from now, when 40 percent of the kids who show up for kindergarten in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will have been born out of wedlock. Statistically speaking, many of them will be damned to failure before they pick up their first pencil. So far, there is no known government program that can change that.
We are rapidly cruising toward a tipping point in this county and this country, where, if present rates of increase in out-of-wedlock births continue, more children will grow up outside a two-parent home than in one in less than 15 years. The social and economic costs of educating, maintaining and ultimately incarcerating many of these kids will be crushing.
And that makes the problem everyone's business. A war on poverty that doesn't include a battle against out-of-wedlock births is doomed to fail.