The story was shocking, troubling, and very important. I’ve come to expect extraordinary journalism from the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, but Naomi Schalit’s five-part series about Maine’s single mothers may be the best they’ve ever done.
Naomi conducted more than 70 interviews, traveled thousands of miles across Maine and as far away as Washington, D.C., digesting dozens of research papers and books filled with statistics and academic language and tracking down lots of people who didn’t want to talk to her. “I have been a reporter for 34 years and this was the hardest story I have ever written,” writes Schalit. “It was hard because people didn’t want to talk to me. They didn’t want to give me fodder for woman-blaming.”
So, let’s not do any blaming here. What we need to do is learn, understand, and act on this important story. That trail begins on the MCPIR website, pinetreewatchdog.org. Here is some of what you will learn.
There has been “a dramatic change in the Maine family — a 500 percent increase in the proportion of children born to single parents in the last 43 years. Nearly half of all births in Maine are now to mothers who are not married, and many of those children are destined to live in poverty.
“It is creating a generation of children who struggle in school, will have a hard time qualifying for a decent job and are more likely to have run-ins with the law and suffer from mental health problems. It is costing all Mainers millions of dollars in programs to help these children and their families. At the same time, those who know the problem best are not sure those programs can ever succeed. Many think more needs to be done.”
That is sobering. But as Naomi reports, “The very people who are in the business of helping the poor are afraid to talk publicly about it. They don’t want to appear to be making moral judgments about those they want to help. They don’t want to shame the victim. But dig deep enough, talk to enough experts, review enough academic studies and the name of the problem emerges: too many single parents having children they can’t afford to take care of.”
Part 2 of the series profiles a single mom, abused by her former husband. Part 3 takes us into the classrooms, where there are “kids who come to school dirty, hungry and unable to even sit at a seat. Kids who spend hours in the bathroom, screaming. Kids who throw a chair out of frustration. Kids who are in school, but in such deep trouble at home they are nowhere near ready to learn.
“To one veteran educator, there was only one way to put it all: ‘We’re in a crisis,’ said Althea Walker, the recently retired principal of Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston. And she has a warning she wants Maine to hear. ‘People need to wake up,’ Walker said. ‘It’s awful.'”
Part 4 takes us into the state prison, profiling “fathers in name only… These men — call them childless fathers — are the oftentimes neglected part of the story about the crisis of single parents in poverty. More than 80 percent of the children of single parents are raised by their mothers, so most of the attention is on those women. But the lack of a father in these children’s lives does a great deal of damage, say experts.”
And finally, in Part 5, titled “Removing Obstacles,” we get a bit of encouragement that solutions to this terrible problem are possible. For example, in Machias there’s a new program helping single moms go to college. “If there’s an idea on which there’s unanimity,” reports Schalit, “it’s that most single mothers in poverty can’t get out of that poverty without more education or job training.”
Thanks to the state Legislature, we’re expanding access to effective birth control, giving free access to contraceptives to 36,000 low-income Maine women through Mainecare and health clinics (although the program has yet to be implemented).
And then there is Educare, which has spread its amazing program from Waterville to Skowhegan, focused on pre-schoolers. If only every Maine child could be blessed with this program. And at the federal level, U.S. Sen. Angus King has introduced several bipartisan pieces of legislation this summer to deal with the problem of families in poverty.
Naomi’s series ends with a statement from Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings Institution economist and one of the country’s leading experts on single-parent families. “I’m not seeing very much political courage,” she said. “I’m seeing very little, in fact.”
So, I’m challenging you to step up, read Naomi’s stories, and show some courage by helping Maine resolve this troubling problem.