State Legislature Observations: Family Breakdowns Create Huge Costs

Every session of the state legislature seems to have a different feel. Two years ago the new legislature came in with energy and optimism for reform. Two years before that it was the evil twins Katrina and Rita that colored everything in that session.

This year, fiscal issues are dominant, along with the noteworthy public vote for a new Speaker Pro Tempore of the House. But while the headlines don’t show it, what seems to dominate committee action and floor time this year involves issues related to the disintegration of the traditional family structure.

It seems like every day in committee, legislation involving child custody arrangements, child alimony payments and jail time, collection of alimony across state lines, grandparents’ rights and access to their grandchildren among so many others consume lawmaker’s times. Yesterday, the health and welfare committee in the House debated a bill regarding the ability of those parents who leave the state and refuse to make court-ordered child support payments while shielding assets in the state was debated and passed by Representative Johnson (D-Marksville). On the Senate floor, members debated and voted on a bill by Senator Quinn (R-Metairie) regarding the language in state law regarding willfully not paying court-ordered child support payment that increases the likelihood of jail time. (Both of the bills are reasonable, by the way.)

These issues rarely get any more than perfunctory treatment in local media. But the reality is that they are a root of so many of the fiscal troubles facing the state.

In the early 1960’s, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a famous article expressing alarm at the breakdown of the family in black communities. At that time, out-of-wedlock births accounted for upwards of one-fourth of all black live births. By the 1990’s, this had soared to more than two-thirds and has remained at this level ever since. For whites, the rates were less than ten percent in the early 1960’s but are approaching one-third of all live births today.

The legacy of the 1960’s has huge ramifications for Louisiana today. Whether it is the high actual cost of incarceration or the ballooning drug treatment programs at the Department of Social Services (DSS) to the alarming high school dropout rates in our schools statewide, many problems dogging the legislature go back to a time when the quaint notion of children growing up in stable families with a mother and father began to unravel.

The “war on poverty” ramped up by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 actually expedited the war on traditional families. We are dealing with these enormous costs in the form of people trapped under a canopy of government programs and I see it every day in the legislature. The plethora of bills regarding child support is just a veneer for the bloated budgets in the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH), the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Department of Corrections.

When you throw in the costs for our law enforcement and court systems across the state, there is hardly any area of the state’s budget that is not negatively impacted by the problem of children growing up in homes and communities without stable families. Just like the federal government’s actions helped expedite the mortgage crisis that gripped capital markets worldwide, the federal government’s actions to “help” families in need have created mass convulsions in the family and the costs are paid by the legislature on a weekly basis.

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