WE face a crisis in this nation. It's a crisis that doesn't appear in many headlines, but rest assured it's gnawing away at our nation's moral fabric. It's the absence of fathers in the family.
Consider these statistics. A recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics reported that 1 in 3 children is born out of wedlock.
Children in fatherless homes are five times more likely to live in poverty and twice as likely to drop out of high school. Fatherless girls are three times more likely to become unwed teenage mothers. Fatherless boys are much more likely to end up behind bars. We have created, in the words of author David Blankenhorn, an underclass of "more boys with guns ... more girls with babies."
Government alone cannot reverse this crisis. We must fundamentally change our culture. We have to work through not just the churches and the temples, not just through volunteer organizations like Big Brothers of America, but through an entire range of mentoring services that unite needy boys and girls with strong male role models.
First-ever fathers summit
Government can play a role first by raising public awareness. On June 13 in Burbank, Calif., I convened the first-ever Focus on Fathers Summit to discuss this crisis and possible remedies.
What we discovered were several areas that deserve immediate attention.
First, we must reverse the skyrocketing unwed teenage pregnancy that is properly in the forefront of everyone's concerns. The stigma of out-of-wedlock pregnancy has all but disappeared from our society. We must change welfare laws so that they stop encouraging teenage girls to set up their own households.
Most teenagers simply aren't prepared to be good parents. They would do better to wait, however sincere their love for their child.
One of the most disturbing things about the exploding number of teen pregnancies is that so many of the fathers are not minors. They are adults - typically, men in their 20s - having sex with 14-year-old girls. That's wrong, and we must enforce the statutory rape laws to prohibit it.
A second area of agreement at our summit was the need to change laws to encourage marriage and thereby strengthen families.
While we clearly don't want anyone to stay in an abusive relationship, because of its destructive effects on the family, we must recognize that the best environment in which to raise children is in a loving home with a mother and a father.
A 'wedfare' initiative
In California, we've taken a step in that direction through our "wedfare" initiative, which provides transitional welfare benefits to welfare mothers who marry, reversing a policy that previously had punished single mothers by automatically canceling their benefits once they found a husband.
We must continue reforming welfare to promote work and self-sufficiency because work plays a central role not just in providing financial support, but in teaching our children the values that they need to succeed in life.
Of course, we must look beyond the government for help, which is why I intend to ask a group of California's religious leaders to see how we can work together so that churches can do more, such as popularizing standards of decent behavior in order that young men can fulfill properly their manhood by learning what it is to be a decent father.
This is essential if we are to see this nation be all that it can be, so that we no longer are simply warehousing dependency instead of enriching human potential.
A third area of agreement was the tremendous importance of parental involvement - not just in the home, but in the child's education. If we want our children to learn values that will allow them to reverse the trend of absent fathers when they grow up, we must first encourage and permit mothers and fathers to be involved in their children's lives at home and at school.
And we must hold parents accountable for their children's actions. The town of Silverton, Ore., has passed a "parental responsibility" law that holds parents liable when their children commit a crime. I will direct California's Task Force on Juvenile Justice Reform to explore how we can change state law to promote this kind of parental responsibility.
Finally, we must recognize that despite our best intentions, even if we make real change and actually reverse this trend of fatherless families, there are still millions of children today who don't have a father in their lives and desperately need male role models.
Role models for children
We must do more to recruit and train mentors so that every child who wants a Big Brother or some other role model in his or her life can actually have one.
I have been fortunate enough to have such a role model throughout my life. My father, Jim Wilson, turned 93 this past February. Most of the values that have guided me in my life I have learned by watching him.
From watching him I learned what a good husband should be.
He has told me many times that he loved me.
He even told me once that almost no matter what I did, regardless of whether he supported my actions, he would be there as support for me.
Every child deserves that same opportunity. We need to talk to all our children. Don't become a parent unless you're ready to fulfill the obligation. Don't casually father a child. Don't bring into this world a child that you're not prepared to be a real father to.
I hope we've begun a process that will provide the kind of love, discipline, and support that all children need if they are to grow up right.
At the fathers summit in California, I believe we began that change.