With column inches in increasingly short supply, The Commercial Appeal uses its prime real estate on the front page to herald this bulletin – 1,024 children have been born to single mothers this year.

Actually, it’s not really a fact, because the number isn’t based on actual 2008 births. Rather, it is based on previous data trends that are extrapolated to the present.

In its own unique way, the “single mother ticker” is perhaps the clumsiest, most inept attempt to illuminate a serious public issue in recent memory.

It fails on so many levels that in the end, it actually obscures the serious debate it is designed to enlighten. Worse still, it devalues the importance of the research and insight under way at Urban Child Institute.

Another Line

It’s all too bad, because the counter runs the serious risk of becoming another unneeded racial dividing line in our city. To many African-Americans, this is yet the latest proof that white people just don’t understand how statements like this are interpreted when filtered through the experience of the majority race in our city.

It’s a little reminiscent of the confused looks that come over the faces of white guys as their comments about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are heard through the filter of gender and racial politics. Suddenly, comments that seem so well-intended and reasonable to white men are received as insensitive, demeaning or patronizing to women and African-Americans.

This seems to be the case of the “single mother counter,” which is seen by many African-Americans as one more symptom of the racial code language that hides beneath a thin veneer of civility in Memphis. To many, it also sends the unmistakable message that the white power structure still controls the conversation and discussion in our city.

All of this is lamentable, because all of the researchers at the Urban Child Institute are deeply passionate and personally invested in attacking the interwoven problems that trap too many of our fellow citizens into lives of poverty, dependency and hopelessness. Based on our reading of their definitive research reports (which are must reading for anyone interested in the future of Memphis), it is hard to conclude that all of those tables, graphs and rows of statistics boil down to say that single mothers are the greatest cause of Memphis’ problems.

Symptoms, Not Causes

More to the point, single mothers are more a symptom of the problems of our city than their cause. We understand what Urban Child Institute is really trying to say: children in families with two incomes have more opportunity, more access to educational enrichment programs and more support for their schooling.

We understand that we live in a media world where simplistic answers are emphasized at the expense of the in-depth discussion that is needed on questions like intractable poverty in too many of our neighborhoods. The “single mother counter” feels an awful lot like a glib marketing response to complex, interlocking public policy issues.

We know many of the people who labor at Urban Child Institute to get out the most reliable data in Memphis and who care deeply about the future of Memphis’ children. We just think that the CA’s counter does a disservice to the equality of their work, and relying on education rather than titillation is the best way in the long run to spark the conversation that we need on the serious web of poverty-related problems in our city.

While the Urban Child Institute is thankfully exploring tactics and cataloguing successful programs in other cities to address the residual damage of these trends in Memphis, it would be encouraging if Memphis at large would place more emphasis on good old-fashioned sex ed. Now, one of four of the births headlined on the CA’s front page is to teenagers. Any notion that state-mandated (and politically driven) abstinence-focused classes are the answer to this has been put to rest once and for all.

Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

According to the always reputable Mathematic Policy Institute Inc., students who participate in sexual abstinence programs are just as likely to have sex a few years later as those who did not, and one in four had a similar number of sexual partners as those who did not take the abstinence classes.

We know that as a culture, we have difficulty grasping the realities of teenage sexuality, but it is a fact of life. Thinking that abstinence-based curriculum masquerading as real sexual education is the same as doing something productively is inane. (How is it that as soon as people get into policy-making positions on this issue, their personal memories are wiped out and they act as if they weren’t doing the same things when they were teenagers?)

Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools are essentially teaching abstinence with some cautionary information about sexually-transmitted diseases and HIV. Of course, the real problem, according to our friends at Planned Parenthood, resides with women in their 20’s who have multiple children (too often with multiple fathers) and with little interest in birth control.

Maybe, just maybe, if we started talking to them about birth control and self-esteem in middle schools, there would be better prospects for slowing the trends highlighted on the front page. What educators report is that having babies is many times a validation of self-worth.

Get Real

Here, we wonder why we don’t get serious and hand out condoms and birth control prescriptions at home room each day? Or while schools unwisely focus on abstinence as the answer, how about designing cool birth control patches and sending health department educators to hand them out to students just off school property?

If the school board in Portland, Maine, managed to vote in favor of making contraceptives available to middle school students, only the imagination limits what we should be doing here. However, the most obvious is to put health clinics in every middle and high school and give the nurses the power to offer serious birth control services unlike the school clinics in the past.

In other words, if we’re really serious about the issue of single mothers, we’d be even more serious about the need to deliver comprehensive sexuality education and access to contraception.

All that said, births to single mothers seem more like a symptom than the fundamental problem of too many people living in poverty. More to the point, we have to come to grips with environments where violence is common place, where parental validation is sparse and where residents are sent the message every day – in poor schools, in poor housing and in high crime rates – that they are not valued by the city in which they live.

Sending A Message

Unfortunately, to many, that is the primary message sent by the CA’s single mother counter – just one more reminder to them that they are seen as a problem, that they are stigmatized and that they are vilified. It’s too bad, because it’s a lost opportunity to have a data-driven conversation that crosses racial lines and produces new understanding and a renewed commitment to solving these issues.

In the meantime, we hope the single mother counter will be short-lived. If it is, here are a few other things we’d be interested in reading on the CA’s front page:

• The amount of public tax money given away in tax freezes.

• The number of new jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

• The ratio of public money spent on poverty prevention and prisons.

• The number of students in Memphis City Schools who drop out or who get a degree but still aren’t proficient on state tests.

• The number of college-educated 25-34 year-olds who are moving out of Memphis compared to the number moving in.

• The increase in the average salary of Memphis workers.

• The number of members of the middle class moving out of Memphis.

• The number of new houses built in Memphis and the number of vacant buildings demolished.

• The gap between the average income of an African-American and a white Memphian.