How to Make Virtue Viable?

September 12, 1994|By CARL T. ROWAN

Washington -- Former Vice President Dan Quayle is off on what seems to be the start of a run for the presidency in 1996. Not surprisingly, his theme is ''family values.'' He deplores ''deadbeat dads'' who abandon their children. His mission is to make Americans understand that ''fathers are not irrelevant.''

There is not a thing in Mr. Quayle's assertions that I can argue with. I run a scholarship program for high school seniors and I have seen the huge advantages that go to a child who grows up with a mother and father -- and especially one lucky enough to have an extended family with educated grandparents around. And I see on one sad occasion after another the troubles and pitfalls that surround youngsters who have grown up with just one parent, usually the mother, to give economic support and moral guidance.

Even as Mr. Quayle preaches his brand of virtue, I notice that a Democrat, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, has issued a report entitled ''Strong Families, Strong Schools.'' In urging more parental involvement in their children's education, Mr. Riley says, ''The American family is the rock on which a solid education can be built.'' I also accept Secretary Riley's formula as a truism.

My major problem with Mr. Quayle, Mr. Riley and the other politicians who prescribe strong families with virtuous values as a cure for America's social woes is that they never tell us how to make strong again those families, those human clusters that are now hopelessly dysfunctional.

Millions of American youngsters grow up thinking that fathers are irrelevant, not just because their mother got impregnated by some scoundrel who skipped town immediately, but because divorces -- bitter divorces -- are an American way of life. There were 1,187,000 divorces in 1993, and the odds are only 50-50 that a marriage taking place today will not end in divorce.

Many divorces occur because the father is a lousy breadwinner. He is not likely to become a prosperous supporter of his old family after divorce. If he does start making good money, it is very difficult to get a judge to force him to make child-support payments.

Many politicians who scream for more prisons, for no parole for any offender, for no rehabilitation programs, fail to see that the more young men they lock up for relatively minor offenses, the more situations they create where very young women will try to rear children without benefit of a father in the house. We now have 15.6 million children growing up in households headed by single females -- these being the poorest, most traumatized households in America.

Secretary Riley's dream of strong schools will never be brought to fruition by these poor, single parents, many of whom work two or three jobs in the interest of economic survival.

There are some super-virtuous politicians, mostly conservative women, who argue that our schools and most everything else would be better if women accepted again the idea that their place is in the home, not on some assembly line or in some corporate office.

We now have 56,714,000 women in the labor force and 3,642,000 more trying to become workers. They are not going to abandon the world of work, so anyone wanting ''strong families'' will have to find ways to accommodate the reality of ''working women.''

Mr. Riley is trying to convince employers that they make for a healthier America if they give their workers ''flex time,'' ''release time,'' day-care facilities at the work site and other areas of latitude that will free them to become involved in the schooling of their children.

Old virtue becomes its own reward only when bolstered by laws and programs that make virtue viable amid the harsh realities of late 20th-century American life.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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