Getting people to quit cigarettes and saving families with children from destitution have nothing in common, right? I think they do, and I think it could be President Obama's single most significant legacy if he would sponsor something comparable to a surgeon general's 1964 report on smoking killing people.
This time, the report would show an epidemic of single-parent homes wrecking lives all over the place.
Of course, even the most alert government reports don't always produce results. Look, for instance, at a 2001 national commission report warning that terrorism would slam us hard if we didn't watch out. Though it was quite naturally pulled off the shelves for further insights after 9/11, some major news outlets yawned to the point of no stories at all when it was initially released.
By contrast, the report of Surgeon General Luther Terry was greeted as a crucial wake-up call, although, in a way, it was old stuff. Official warnings about tobacco had been around since at least 1604.
That's when a governmental treatise, not here but in England and authored by King James I, excoriated tobacco as "loathsome," "barbarous," "stinking" and "venomous." By the 20th century, the adjectival onslaught had been supplemented by data showing cigarette linkages to lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease and bronchitis. In the late 1950s, the federal government announced the evidence of a cancer connection was huge. Oh, ho-hum, said smokers, smokers everywhere, sucking the venom in, blowing it out and dying prematurely.
Health organizations said this won't do, one account reminds us. They insisted on a national commission, they got one, it analyzed thousands of studies and then the surgeon general put out a whopper of a report that received big-time attention generating big-time follow-up. The benefits over the past half century? Smokers used to constitute about 43 percent of the population. Now they're about 18 percent. Something like eight million people have been saved from early deaths.
Now we come to the family, venerated by great thinkers as crucial to humanity as far back as Aristotle and viewed in the 20th century by Daniel Patrick Moynihan as unraveling in the black community.
A cerebrally gifted social scientist who later became a U.S. senator, Moynihan was an assistant secretary of labor in 1965 when he put out a report observing that a startling 24 percent of black women were having babies without being married, compared to a national average of 7 percent. This phenomenon could put black progress in a cage, he said.
Others have noted how his work was dismissed by many and how the situation has since spiraled, not just among blacks, whose illegitimacy rate today is 73 percent, but among just about all groups as the national average has climbed to 41 percent. While the lone mother is sometimes successful and two-parent homes are sometimes a mess, the rise of one-parent homes has been a catastrophe.
They usually heap hardship on the mother as they leave children more likely to live in poverty, to turn to crime, to drop out of school. Parenting is a two-person proposition, government is no substitute for Daddy, and studies by think-tank analysts both liberal and conservative have shown that nothing would begin to lift millions of the poor to middle-class status as more marriage.
President Obama has preferred to point to other causes as limiting opportunity, and, of course, there are other causes, just none that can compare to this. He has also demonstrated that he gets it, as in preaching in 2008 to a black congregation in Chicago about the detrimental consequences of absent fathers.
He was a U.S. senator then. Now, as president, he needs to preach to the nation, relying for starters on a commission issuing an experts' report masterfully written and masterfully publicized and reaching well beyond a 1993 commission on urban families heeded about as much as the commission on terrorism. If enough of a thoroughly justified exclamation mark, it could lead to all kinds of rescue attempts and make a historic difference.
(Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.)