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The father factor

Epidemics typically generate an emotional response from the afflicted, especially where the disease brings about great carnage. Yet, one of the most gruesome conditions within contemporary America proceeds apace, with only periodic bursts of serious attention.

The epidemic in question is fatherlessness, and the cultural consequences are frightening. A sampling of the damage from statistics researched by "The Fatherless Generation" project :

•90 percent of homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes;

•85 percent of children who suffer from behavioral disorders are from fatherless homes;

•71 percent of high school dropouts are from fatherless homes;

•Nearly 60 percent of all children living in poverty reside in a single female parent household; and

•Daughters raised without an involved father are 53 percent more likely to marry as teenagers, 71 percent more likely to have children as teenagers, 164 percent more likely to experience a premarital birth, and 92 percent more likely to get divorced.

It should not be lost on policymakers (and taxpayers) that all of the traditional markers noted herein (homelessness, runaways, dropouts, single-female-headed households) have direct links to poverty. They also have direct links to increased public costs through government assistance programs.

Of course, not all fatherless homes suffer impoverishment or produce troubled children. There are many hardworking single parents and guardians who overcome daunting obstacles to raise highly successful children. Often, grandparents, extended family, mentors and friends help in filling the void left by an absent dad. But cases of beating the odds are more the exception than the rule; fatherlessness continues to be an accurate predictor of adolescent difficulties.

The mere citation of the forgoing numbers can rile certain progressive pundits into hyper-defensive mode, as if the recognition of the problem and its awful consequences is somehow "insensitive." Well, the time for sensitivity has come and gone. A politically correct lens will not hide the damage brought about by this "disease." And time is of the essence. Every day without a renewed culture-wide commitment to active fatherhood means more kids placed at risk; every day produces more kids headed for a criminal justice system ill equipped to handle the myriad of mental health problems carried by this troubled population.

During my tenures as governor, congressman and legislator, I visited many of Maryland's juvenile and adult correctional facilities. Often, I left in a melancholy mood. These are no places for the faint of heart. The scenes are right out of "Scared Straight" and disturbingly predictable: jails full of mostly young men with little formal education. Dropouts are plentiful. Many are alcohol or substance abusers. Some suffer from mental illness. Few possess marketable skills. And a majority come from fatherless homes.

Our correctional system is expected to perform rehabilitative miracles. Unfortunately, far too many of our young offenders are received in damaged condition. Turnarounds are difficult (but not impossible) to achieve. And the task is made ever more challenging by the absence of an involved father.

Personal experience has further strengthened my views as to the pivotal role of fathers and male role models in childhood development. I have coached a youth football team for the last six years. This time has allowed me to watch firsthand the physical and emotional development of young boys from a variety of family backgrounds. My (reinforced) takeaway: Boys need father-inspired discipline. Any youth coach will tell you there are plenty of children without such influence. For them, the long-term prognosis is typically not a positive one.

So many social issues tend to break along liberal and conservative lines. This issue, however, stands alone: young children require parental guidance, and fathers play an essential role in providing it. Despite periodic delusional messages from Hollywood to the contrary, this notion still represents a majority view. And everyone from President Barack Obama toJay-Z to Pat Buchanan has said so.

Nevertheless, too much lip service and not enough actual fatherhood has produced too many problematic young people. Our cultural epidemic of fatherlessness is out of control. It reflects a weakening of our cultural values. And there is no one government program to save the day, either. It must be a collective effort to fix our culture, to make such results unacceptable in America. Failure to act will perpetuate our present desultory track, a truly unacceptable result.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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