In January, The Commercial Appeal raised eyebrows with its decision to display the estimated number of babies born to local single mothers for the year.
The Urban Child Institute (UCI) sponsors the display and supplies the number, which is a composite of childbirth figures from 1999-2005. UCI president Gene Cashman explained that the organization hoped to start a public conversation about single parenthood, its effects on children and, by extension, life in Memphis. The Flyer took the bait and sat down with several members of the institute to have that conversation and look behind the number.
Cashman explained that the institute is a conglomerate of physicians, academics, and social workers in a nonpartisan, data-driven public-policy research center.
UCI spun off from the 1995 merger of Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center and Methodist Hospital. Le Bonheur's parent company liquidated its business holdings, which funded the nascent UCI under former Le Bonheur president Cashman. UCI claimed $159 million in assets on its 2006 IRS 990 form.
UCI issued grants to organizations dealing with teen pregnancy, youth alcohol and drug abuse, and violence in its early years without effect, before recently deciding to address these problems themselves while continuing to issue grants.
The number of single-parent births, published every Monday in the CA, represents UCI's first step in this new direction. It has succeeded at least in generating conversation, much of it critical.
The director of community affairs for the local Planned Parenthood, Christie Petrone, called the meter "disconcerting, because it stigmatizes women without offering solutions."
Others have said that the meter lacks context. Members of the institute admitted that the number may not reflect its concerns, which are far more complex than the meter indicates.
Cashman explained the UCI's motives thusly: "We have all of this data [about problems facing children in Memphis]. One major thing that pops up in all these ills and issues is a single-parent birth. If you're looking at infant mortality, it's a major indicator. If you're looking at crime or poor educational performance, it's there. All of those things seem to tie back in to that phenomenon. Hopefully, the odometer can bring a level of discussion and activity to those issues."
Issues such as crime, UCI believes, are rooted in brain development, a fact any observer would be hard-pressed to discern from the meter.
"The basic science can't be overlooked," Cashman said. "The brain begins developing about two weeks after conception. It's hard-wired — about 80 percent by age 3 and 90 percent by age 5. It doesn't matter if you're rich, poor, black, or white.
"With that [knowledge], you get an appreciation of emphasizing the front end [of life]. That's not to say that there aren't things that can be done to help someone later in life, but there needs to be emphasis put on the front end. Researchers [are] realizing that the origins of social problems are back in early development. That gets back to the odometer."
According to the American Community Survey, 52 percent of the births in Shelby County in 2005 were to single mothers, which, according to UCI, destabilizes Memphis and detracts from the quality of life.
Not so fast, said Petrone. "[UCI] assumes that births to single mothers are unintentional. This is offensive to those who choose to become single mothers by divorce, adoption, or otherwise," Petrone said.
"The overriding issue with the population we're concerned about is poverty," explained Hank Herrod, a UCI fellow and professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee. "Starting from the time the baby is conceived, these women are under tremendous stress. This influences hormonal things that influence brain development in the child. A lot of them don't have tools to stimulate the [child's] brain. If they don't have the resources, they don't have books around. The whole single-mom thing is designed to bring attention to the child."
Though the meter is short on solutions, UCI social worker Barbara Holden Nixon offered a few.
"When the stress [of being poor] is there, they're not going to be doing the things that science tells us can make a difference in that child's life," she said. "They're too busy trying to survive. If we can get the attention of that community, tell them, 'Talk to your baby, hold your baby, look into your baby's eyes.' ... These things that cost nothing can change the outcome for that child."
"We should invest in these families," added Katie Spurlock, another UCI social worker, "so we don't have to pay down the road through remedial education and the criminal justice system."
Cashman insisted that his organization can change direction if the meter fails. "The criticisms that we get seldom mention children," Cashman said. "When the criticisms don't mention children, that's when we think they've missed the point. It's not a judgment about the way anyone's living. It's about making [disadvantaged children] a higher priority."