America Faces a Popeye Moment

Posted: Dec 13, 2006 8:50 AM
America Faces a Popeye Moment

Popeye the Sailor is a 1930s comic strip character who is still popular through home video productions of the television cartoon series. What stands out in the old Popeye series are the "Popeye Moments." That's when Popeye has had all he can take. At that point Popeye says, "I've had all I can stand! I can't stands no more!" He flexes his biceps and off he goes to straighten things out.

Those of us who work on America's cultural and domestic issues know exactly how Popeye felt. There are moments when we can't stand any more; we've had all we can stand, and we "can't stands no more!"

America stands at a Popeye Moment regarding children living in fatherless families, and we need to do everything we can to "straighten things out."

We've had plenty of warning about illegitimacy and the very real dangers of "father absence." Somehow, though, the ever increasing trends have not really set off an alarm in the public square.

In the mid-60s, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned us about the dangers of fatherless families, yet while the statistics have steadily increased, it has been politically incorrect to warn against "illegitimacy." Little attention has been given when researchers and social analysts have cited the predictable negative outcomes of an absent father in the family or when they have spread the news that illegitimacy feeds on itself –– the daughters of unwed mothers are more likely to have children out of wedlock. For years, nobody really noticed or cared when conservative lobbyists and activists provided strong evidence that sex should be reserved for marriage and that the married mother and father provide the best place for raising children.

Yet in recent years, our work has produced widespread promotion of increasingly more sophisticated and effective abstinence-until-marriage programs. As a result, teen childbearing has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s. This decrease shows the positive impact of abstinence programs on the teen birth rate as well as the teen abortion rate – which has dropped even more than the teen birth rates.

Even so, the latest figures from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reveal that well over one-third (36.8 percent) of all American children (2 out of 5) are born out of wedlock. Illegitimate births total over 1.5 million a year. Unbelievably, it is not teenage hormones that are driving this disastrous increase. Instead, single adult women are the ones who are having the babies without marrying the father. The upward trend of unwed births to mothers over age 20 has steadily increased since 1975; this, in spite of the fact that birth control is readily available and that these women are old enough to know better.

Those who have not actually experienced father absence can celebrate books like "Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice" or "Raising Boys Without Men." Listening to those who have lived without a father is a totally different matter.

Ray Lewis is an All-American football hero –– he has twice been a National Football League Defensive Player of the Year and was Super Bowl XXXV's most valuable player. There are those who make a strong case that he is the greatest linebacker and best football player in NFL history. He grew up, though, in a single-mother home, and while he is very close to his mother, his rage is palpable whenever he talks about his absent father.

In the television profile, Beyond the Glory, it was painful to observe and listen as Lewis described the emotional toll on his life because his father was never there. He recounted numerous attempts to reconcile with his father. He sobbed as he relived a recent attempt when his father agreed to meet with him, but didn't show up. He said, "My father was always lying to me, telling me he was going to see me on this day or bring me something on that day, and he never did."

During high school, Ray was determined to outdo his father in athletics. He set a goal of breaking every single sports record his father had established. Ray said he succeeded in "replacing his name with mine." Following the typical pattern, Ray, a single father, doesn't want his children to go through what he went through without a dad; yet, he hasn't married either of the mothers of his four children.

Ray Lewis is a high-profile example of a common phenomenon. His life illustrates the data, and his experiences characterize the impact that father absence has on the lives of literally millions of children in America. There are far too many children who never see their dads; even way too many who have no idea who is their dad. Those children are paying too high a price in a nation where everybody from politicians to corporate presidents talk about their motivation being to do things "for our children."

At this national Popeye Moment, it is time to cry out, "Our culture has had all it can stand! It can't stands no more!" We have to move family issues to the top of our national policy and political priorities. Woodrow Wilson once described politics as a "war of causes." The result of the illegitimacy crisis on our nation's children is an ultimate cause. Unless we wage war on the root causes of out-of-wedlock births and do something about rebuilding America's families, we can forget about being a world superpower.