Church's voice needed for life after birth

Like I did, you may think you have a pretty good idea just how many American children are born out of wedlock. If you're like me, you'd be way, way off.

An editorial in USA TODAY lays out the staggering statistics: in 2009, 41 percent of American children were born to unmarried mothers, up from five percent half-a-century ago.

Break it down and it looks even worse: 73 percent of non-Hispanic black children, and 54 percent of Hispanic children.

As the newspaper argues, this key collapse in social structure contributes to other childhood ills: one-third of our kids are overweight or obese. Nearly one-third drop out of high school or can't finish in four years.

A nine-year long study by Princeton and Columbia universities makes the link clear. This look at "fragile families" reveals that most never-married mothers had close relationships with their partner when the child was born. But by age five most fathers were gone, contact with kids was minimal at best, and a string of new and uncertain male relationships with the mother followed in his wake. This substantially hampers a child's development.

This is not, in some ways, news. In 1965, USA TODAY notes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan first raised flags about this phenomenon -- when the out-of-wedlock birth rate in the African-American community was 24 percent. That rate now seems low.

As I read all this, I couldn't help but wonder: where is the church?

I know that on the ground, in poor areas all over the country, Catholic parishes, priests, nuns, teachers and volunteers struggle to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children.

But the church's heirarchy seems, by and large, oblivious. Year after year, decade after decade, they ring a loud bell for pro-life policies. Each election cycle, it becomes a near-myopic focus. This even drove many church leaders to oppose a health care reform that would benefit poor families, along with many others.

And yet, life after birth in this country continues to fracture at an alarming rate. The numbers prove that, in this regard, we are a nation unrecognizable from fifty years ago.

But a clear, unified, consistent church voice -- that brings pressure to bear from Washington to Main Street, from pulpit to housing project -- seems absent.

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