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When will legislators get involved in main problem?

When Baby New Year arrives in the coming days, chances are he or she will be born out of wedlock.

It is a sad fact that whoever the baby may be — boy or girl, white or black — it will probably be born in a family where the parents are not married.

In recent weeks, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has said this is one of the biggest issues facing our state. It is also one of the issues legislators were unwilling to tackle in his eight years in office.

In his two terms, Barbour has had many successes. He spoke to the Associated Press this week about those achievements.

However, the most revealing part of the interview was when he was asked what problem he would like to fix with the snap of his finger, Barbour responded with a discussion on the state’s illegitimacy rate.

“The biggest structural problem is illegitimacy. Nothing else comes close,” Barbour said.

By the governor’s numbers, 55 percent of children born in Mississippi last year were born out of wedlock. In Washington County the number hit 79 percent.

“Seventy nine percent is a tough burden to carry,” Barbour said.

Yet, it is a load legislators are willing to carry Barbour admitted.

Almost every corner of government is affected by this “structural” problem — the education, health care, housing and criminal justice systems among them. Even as the problems worsen, legislators refuse to address it.

“Hopefully there will become an appetite in the Legislature to find ways, acceptable ways, to address the problem effectively,” Barbour said. “But, I found no appetite in the Legislature, even from legislators who privately would tell you it is a terrible problem.”

When they do talk about it, many say it is a problem that is better addressed in the church, not in the halls of government. It is a family problem, some say.

Maybe, but such idealism betrays the pragmatic facts. As the illegitimacy rate climbs, the number of people filling the pews declines. Churches have had many years to address this issue, yet the problem seems to be getting worse, not better. Either the churches aren’t preaching the message or the people aren’t listening.

Seventy nine percent is no longer a family problem. It is a systemic problem that needs attention. With those kind of numbers illegitimacy is more the norm than the anomaly — a dangerous thing in the world of politics. Still, Barbour admitted something needs to be done.

“What we’re doing now is not working,” Barbour said. “It’s just very hard to have the kind of workforce you want, to have the kind of schools you want, to have the kind of tax base you want.”

As Barbour pointed out, a child born out of wedlock is six times more likely to be raised in poverty than a child in a family with a mother and father. The problems multiply from there.

Of course there is a difference between identifying a problem and having the fortitude and the will to do something about it.

If the legislature does not have the will to create policies that discourage illegitimacy and the churches are failing to reach those most affected by the issue, then the problems will more than likely worsen.

The only question is how bad does it have to get before we decide to act?

 

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com or 601-445-3540.