Discovering Montana

Remarks by Gov. MARC RACICOT on the Family

Butte, March 14, 1996 ( to download text )

Thank you very much. It is, indeed, a pleasure to be here with you this evening to share some time and thoughts together on a subject that is not only important but essential for the social and political future of our state. Montana is, I think we would all agree, a very special place where independent and candid people can still gather together largely in civility and safety.

We are, in a way, here in Montana a very large and very diverse family. We are linked both by what we have in common, living here together in this magnificent corner of God's good earth. And we are also linked by our respect for each other's differences. I spent some of my childhood in Miles City. And I spent some of my childhood in Libby. I have traveled virtually everywhere in between since. And I would safely say that being a neighbor in Montana still means something more than merely living next door to someone.

I know you are gathered here to address the important subject of youth violence and its prevention. This is good and necessary and we heartily salute your commitment and dedication. Our society in general and far too many families specifically are paying an awful price for youth violence and its aftermath. Firm and certain punishment is necessary--everything in life has consequences--but firm and certain punishment by itself is insufficient. Punishment is a reaction to symptoms. We must also have prevention.

As with so many of our stubborn social problems, the roots of modern-day America's youth violence, I believe from my long experience both as a parent and as a prosecutor, can be traced directly back to the family or, sadly in too many cases, the lack of family.

Family is what I wanted to talk about with you here this evening. Family is a delicate issue. Issues of fatherhood and motherhood are often emotional. They touch every one of us. Our society often shies away from frank discussions of family because, I think, we fear violating another's privacy.

But I think the time has come for more candor because the problems of so many malfunctioning families now wash over to affect all of us. The costs of vandalism or shoplifting, for instance, are built into the price that law-abiding customers pay every day, including the costs of those theft detectors at store doors. You and I may have never stolen a thing. But we are paying the costs of those who have never been taught not to.

Or the costs of another teen pregnancy, which hit each one of us when another one-parent household is created, or another welfare family and, likely, another generation in this all-too familiar cycle of poverty. Or the abuse of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. This hits each one of us through the costs of increased public medical care, of the increased costs of our justice and penal systems, and, sadly, of the increased personal costs of this anti-social behavior when it creates new victims--of a robbery, an assault or a drunk driver.

No one can change all of this by herself or himself. But, likewise, no change will work without the powerful impetus of a renewed social consensus behind it, without each one of us making a conscious decision to make a new effort even if it's just within our own family.

I do not intend to preach or to seek to unilaterally impose some official concept of "family." I am, however, hoping that we--all of us here in Montana--can begin tonight and continue into the months and years ahead, as necessary, a statewide discussion on Family--its many aspects and its numerous challenges--and on how we as a caring society and government can support and strengthen this social unit that is so essential to our survival as a civilized country.

Government is doing its official share as it can. But our new goal should be to rebuild and protect a social environment that ought to have at least as much attention devoted to it as our magnificent physical environment.

I think few people would argue either the importance of families in passing on our society's values or the fact that our families are undergoing quite possibly the worst strains in history. But family is, quite simply, the most important unit in our society. And we must do all that we can not only to help heal those families in disarray, but to prevent that kind of further fraying of our social fabric.

The problem is not that Americans are having more babies. The problem is that Americans with children are having fewer marriages first---or not staying in the ones they have. Federal figures for 1993 reveal that the percentage of children living with one parent more than doubled in one generation--from 12 percent in 1970 to 27 percent in 1993. Today, nearly one-third of American babies are born into one-parent households; in Montana, the figure is nearly 27 percent.

It is no disrespect to single parents to note that it is infinitely harder raising children alone than it is with a loving partner. Single parents have a very challenging responsibility--perhaps one of the most difficult jobs facing any segment of our society. And many single parents do a phenomenal job.

But statistics show that single-parent families are far more likely to live in poverty, which further limits their opportunities and strains our society's resources. Sadly, these statistics also reveal that children from such households are more likely to become juvenile delinquents, school dropouts, teen parents and recipients of public assistance. This not only costs all of us in financial terms, which is important. But just as important, with each life lost, that costs the soul of society, too.

Even two-parent families, typically today with both working outside the home, are hard-pressed to keep up with the financial, emotional and time demands of efficiently--and effectively--running a family. I know there are many earnest, hardworking families with two working parents who may feel guilty at times over the competing demands on their time and attention; it is the same in our home.

I know parenting is very hard work. I'm not going to stand here and tell anyone how to be a good parent. That would be rightfully resented. But I am going to stand here and tell you that being a good parent is extremely important for each particular child and for our society as a whole. Parenting is an endless responsibility. No matter how tired, how discouraged or even how challenged, we can never quit trying to impart decency, values and loving guidance to our future.

Setting boundaries, I fear, is increasingly difficult given the volume, persistence and apparent attractiveness of other less wholesome values, activities and temptations that each one of us is bombarded with every day through all kinds of media.

But if functioning families are not always there for the next generation, that leaves those young people ready prey for the pressures of outside influences, such as peer groups and gangs, which may not have the wholesome growth of a young person as their top priority.

Indeed, ignoring the problems of our nation's young people and the families they come from will virtually guarantee that the future demands and costs for prisons and foster care will continue to escalate. Do you know which state had the second highest growth in its corrections budget for fiscal year 1995? It was Montana--at 28.9 percent. Only Florida had more corrections spending growth. We keep punishing the problem-makers. And we must. But what I want you to carry away tonight is that I think we should prevent the problem-makers in the first place.

Frankly, we can't afford not to. America already has in prison 565 of every 100,000 citizens. That's 1.4 million people, more prisoners in American prisons than in some totalitarian countries. And if you include everyone also on probation or parole, a record 5.1 million Americans are involved; that's nearly three percent of our country's entire adult population.

Let me make a sobering point here: If our families do not survive as the properly functioning first-line teachers, providers and comforters for our children--the classmates, co-workers and neighbors of tomorrow--then little else we do will matter across this land. Families are that important to our nation's future. And their struggles are that much of a threat.

Now, some people--myself included--might wonder if government can or should be involved in promoting such an essentially private and individualistic institution. After all, what can government do to affect positively the millions of individual decisions made by our families? That is a legitimate question.

The answer clearly is that government cannot and should not do everything. But government at all levels can, I believe, play an important leadership role in pointing the way, in encouraging positive behavior, in discouraging negative behavior, in coordinating and facilitating beneficial private and local initiatives and solutions and in educating our citizens to pay at least as much attention to the responsibilities of people in our democracy as they do to the benefits of life in a democracy. In short, we need to demand more of ourselves and ask less of others.

Government is doing a lot to help. I do not want to provide a laundry list of acronyms, but these efforts include the state's Family Policy Act, which mandates that all legislation and programs be viewed by how they impact families. Other programs include private-public partnerships to improve health care access for children, programs to provide and improve mental health care locally to maintain families.

Our welfare reform program, one of the nation's most far-reaching, was designed to strengthen families in need by eliminating the marriage penalty, to turn welfare into a temporary two-way street of dignity and responsibility, instead of a one-way ticket to despair and dependence.

I have two adopted siblings and our parents routinely took in foster children. Thanks to a grant from the Kellogg Foundation, our state government has been able to set aside increased resources to improve and speed up the placement of foster children into permanent loving homes. We are nearing the release date of Volume I of the Montana Treasure Book, a collection of profiles of children available for adoption. We also plan, should we be returned to office this year, to offer the next Legislature a major overhaul of our adoption laws, the goal being to simplify that often time-consuming process.

The ongoing reorganization of state government is designed to provide closer cooperation among human service agencies. This includes our nationally-recognized enforcement of child support without which too many children go on welfare. Montana's children are owed millions of dollars by their absent parents, dollars which law-abiding families are asked to replace through welfare. Our crackdown, using innovative methods and stressing paternity acknowledgement, will see collections of child support funds total about $35 million this fiscal year. This compares with $8.8 million collected in 1989.

I have been in this office now a little more than 38 months. And I was a prosecutor for 20 years before that. I have seen in the prison, the jails, the social welfare offices, the schools, the courts, the daycare centers, the probation offices and the streets the kinds of mounting problems that afflict our society. It is a kind of social malnutrition. Twenty years ago, we had drive-in meals, not drive-by shootings.

We still live very well and safely in Montana, by virtually any standard. Montanans do not live behind protective bars, as some law-abiding residents of distant cities must for their own protection. Our families and communities have experienced--and overcome--a challenging geography and an array of adverse economic decisions and cycles that would crush those with weaker wills.

Let me give you just two stunning statistics to illustrate the breadth of threats to our young people and their families. Two percent of America's youth have experimented with cocaine. In Montana, the percentage is 3. In America, 46 percent of 10th graders report having sexual intercourse. In Montana, it's 45 percent. The sad truth is that our youths are not immune to national trends, nor are they immune to AIDS, suicide, gangs, shootings, drugs or any other national malady.

That's why I guess when I hear the tired defeatist statement: One person or one government can't do anything, I respond: We can't NOT do something. As a society, we simply cannot afford to wait any longer to address these problems. America and Montana are not dictatorships. No one can impose simplistic solutions. Answers must grow from within after thorough examination, discussion and analysis. And that is what we are trying to do now, to ignite that examination, discussion and analysis.

There is no better time to begin these overdue discussions than on the eve of springtime, that season so full of promise and hope which, when you think about it, is what is also carried within each new generation of children.

Now, by "addressing these problems" I do not mean to suggest that state government should create and launch yet another array of costly government programs. We simply do not have the money to do this. Nor should we. We have been concentrating on making existing programs more effective and efficient.

And I should think that experience has taught us over many recent decades that too often such expensive official efforts do little that's helpful. In fact, they may actually complicate the natural workings of families by creating disincentives to individual initiatives. So, more of this approach is unlikely to achieve any breakthroughs. Governmental ideology simply cannot replace individual responsibility.

Still, there are some initiatives we can--and will--be taking. By executive order I will create and appoint the Governor's Council on Families. Its assignment will be to engage public and private interests in every possible way to work toward the preservation of the family as the single most powerful influence for ensuring our healthy social development.

With existing resources in the Department of Public Health and Human Services, the Governor's Council on Families will not only review government programs and policies that affect parents and their children, it will also direct its efforts toward building our capacity to have strong and healthy families in Montana.

I will look to this council for counsel and guidance. The Council will also initiate and lead an ongoing statewide dialogue on the status, needs and strengths of Montana families. The public discussion will enhance and sustain efforts to preserve the family. It will assist in the development and implementation of policies and legislation that allow for and encourage healthy families.

The Council will examine every issue that affects families including economic development and the creation of meaningful employment opportunities, tax reforms that help families prosper and grow, juvenile justice policy that protects the law-abiding and addresses youth violence and the accessibility of health care, to name a few.

The point is to make Montana forever family-friendly.

I can foresee the day when the Governor's Council on Families holds a summit on parenthood and its responsibilities. Or organizes and leads a series of Montana family nights around the state with open microphones. Or recommends a measure, which I support, to allow, with appropriate legal safeguards, a teacher to eject an unruly student from class. Because--and I mean this very seriously--a minority of disruptive students cannot be allowed to impede the education of the eager, hardworking majority.

The point is, just as we have determined to rebuild our state's crumbling physical infrastructure, so too must we rebuild and rejuvenate our state's family infrastructure.

Now let me speak to the young men of Montana for a moment. You are responsible for your actions, just as each young woman is, and you should expect to be held accountable for your actions. If you are man enough to help bring a child into this world, you better be man enough to help care for, to raise and to love that child.

I will have the great honor of being Governor of Montana for only a few years. But I will have the responsibilities, obligations and joys of being a father in a family as long as I live. I know, as do most of you, that raising a child has become increasingly difficult.

So, speaking as a father who happens for the moment to also be a Governor, my most earnest hope is that by these remarks tonight and by others we intend to make in the coming weeks, we will spark an immense amount of public and private discussion across this state that will lead to an even greater amount of public and private action.

I would hope that this soul-searching would lead to renewed or even new commitments by individual Montana families and communities, commitments to invest at least the same kind of time and attention in their family members as we do in our gardens, our jobs, our recreation or our parties. Love is work. That's a fact. And the work of love is attentiveness to every family member.

The price of inattention, as we can easily see in the state prison at Deer Lodge, in Youth Court and the county jails, is the kind of emerging social decay in far too many areas today.

If this tide of social decay and dismay can be turned around anywhere in America, it will be turned around in Montana, or places like Montana, where people still clearly care about each other. If this tide of social decay and dismay can be turned around anywhere in America, it will be turned around over time by millions of individual heartfelt acts and decisions in homes and trailers, in cabins and condos throughout Montana.

If government can facilitate the congregation of numerous individuals, clubs and groups to pick up litter along hundreds of miles of Montana roadsides, shouldn't we also help facilitate Montanans investing at least the same effort in strengthening the most important social unit of all, our families?

Because the most important first step to improving anything is deciding that we can--and I would suggest in this instance that we must. I hope this statewide dialogue causes mothers and fathers to participate and to examine honestly and openly in the privacy of their own hearts and minds what they are doing to strengthen their family.

I hope that classes of older brothers and sisters will talk and act upon what they can do to strengthen their families. I hope that church and prayer groups, professional associations and unions, will share their members' ideas and hopes for families, no matter how humble, plain or simple they may seem.

I hope, too, that this statewide dialogue will be conscientiously covered by our state's news media, not so much as another opportunity to chronicle the chronic conflict that is our depressing daily bread. But instead I hope they will approach this phenomenon as fellow members of a well-meaning society determined to protect and to build upon the positive strengths of our families, their subscribers and viewers.

I was intrigued to learn the other day, for instance, that the police in Long Beach, Calif. have begun issuing tickets to children whom officers see behaving well --cleaning up litter, being polite, wearing safety helmets. These "tickets" are actually good for free ice cream cones. Besides allowing officers to be involved with dispensing welcome citations for a change, this provides the kind of positive reinforcements that work on everyone. Like the small community of Joliet, Montana that celebrates its honor roll students with a banquet.

I hear often from school children, either by letter or in person at our public book readings. Some are frightened by the violence they perceive around them. Jessica Scanlon is a 12-year-old friend of mine in Great Falls who asked me to sign her petition for reducing violence in television programming. Jessica is a very precocious, confident and insightful young lady.

We asked her why she thought her family functions well. "Because," she said, "we always help and support each other."

How do you help and support each other? we asked. "Whenever I see my little brother looks lonely," she said, "I play a game with him or tell him a story."

Where did she learn to do that? we inquired. Jessica said, "My big sister used to do it for me."

And where did Jessica think her big sister learned such family compassion and caring? "From our parents," she said.

I think it extremely unlikely Montanans will ever hear about Jessica Scanlon assaulting a classmate.

We all confront a disconcerting array of economic uncertainties in our lives today and we confront countless bewildering changes that assault us and confuse us and seem to consume so much of our time merely in keeping up and getting by. Despite all of our instantaneous technologies, many of us can feel isolated and alone, and that can cause us to wonder about what we are doing and its worth.

It is most important to remind ourselves often at such times that much about what most of us are doing is good and right. The overwhelming majority of Montanans are not in prison. The overwhelming majority of Montana teenagers will graduate from high school and will go on to successful careers and families.

Which means that sometimes the best thing government can do is stay out of the way of the many functioning families in our society and essentially cheer them on. We must let them know that they are not alone in their struggle and that we value their silent series of good deeds and investments in our mutual futures. In fact, I believe that despite some impressions to the contrary, such families also remain in the vast majority.

It is another fact that children get born....But it takes a family to raise them. And if our individual families, in their own infinite and collective wisdoms, fail in the job of raising their offspring properly and civilly, then it will be left to government and you and I to handle the debris that ensues.

I can tell you from my experience in government, that despite all of its well-meaning and dedicated workers, government is not the best instrument for handling the fallout of children uneducated in the art of human companionship and its socially acceptable behaviors. Nor can schools, by themselves, shoulder the entire load either, despite their best efforts and the dedication of staff.

We--all of us Montanans--can no longer sit back and wait for someone to take the initiative. All of us bear the individual responsibility of participation. Let schools and churches, newspapers, radio and TV stations, association newsletters and employee bulletin boards, let them all collect and publicize ideas to strengthen families. Our office will do the same. We would like to publish a book detailing 365 ways to help Montana families function well.

Here are some ideas we've already collected: A father who teaches his children the alphabet by helping them to cut each letter out of wood, one letter every school night. A family that declares, without fail, one night every week as Family Council night when TV is banned and everyone eats a favorite meal together, discusses what's on their minds and then goes for ice cream together. An office worker who sets aside one or two noon hours every month to eat lunch at school with his youngster.

What if our community schools encouraged Family Nights by declaring one night every week be kept free of any athletics or outside activity or meetings--and meant it? If churches or prayer groups held Family Nights for groups to share ideas on parenting? If restaurants and entertainment facilities offered special Family Nights or rates? If television newscasts covered Family News one-tenth as often as they do murder trials or celebrity divorces.

What about regularly-scheduled family reading times with youngsters, emphasizing tales of virtue and courage? What if families scheduled a regular story time with grandparents to share their memories, histories and values? If families are farflung, they can use audio or videotapes. Could churches invite elderly members to share their memories and stories with Sunday school classes? Or facilitate groups of parents to share parenting skills and quietly mentor new parents?

Some families schedule a time together when every member can tell a favorable story about another family member. One father cooks oddly-shaped pancakes every Sunday with the children guessing what animal each pancake resembles. Every month another family bakes a different kind of cookie together, a time that typically ends in much mutual reminiscing.

These are small, but vivid and memorable incidents in the lives of a few families. I suspect each of you could match them with your own. The specific activities are probably irrelevant. But such shared times are the threads in the fabric that binds these social units. Let us collect and share the ways that work, instead of shaking our heads in dismay over what happens to young lives bereft of such familial nurturing.

I would suggest that is what families are made of--an endless series of minor details, shared lives, memories and values that create caring and that transmit the rules of a civilized society to the next generation--one moment and one child at a time. Families truly are an amazingly efficient teaching institution, for better or worse.....I prefer, better.

It seems that a small but significant number of families have experienced growing difficulties in sharing those lives, those memories, those times and those values. And that is where we ought to direct our collective interest in order to avoid growth in social chaos. When I grew up in Libby, we didn't have 911 to hand off neighborhood family problems; we worked things out ourselves. The same can be true again tomorrow.

Let us again, individually and collectively, take control of our neighborhoods and the future of our families. Let us, together, keep our state as a living, breathing example of what America used to be, of what it still can be. And let us, then, let the world call Montana The Last Best Place....For Families. Thank you. Good night. And God bless. ###

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