Penalizing Parents 

In what was billed in advance as a "State of the County" address to the Memphis Rotary Club on Tuesday, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, after acknowledging his constitutional lame-duck status, wasted little time before demonstrating that A) time is therefore a-wastin' and B) he can hurl thunderbolts as well as that other mayor. His were just delivered with a velvet touch.

Beginning his luncheon address in accordance with the traditional "point-with-pride/view-with-alarm" formula, Wharton enumerated what he regards as achievements (his administration's Smart Growth initiative prominent among them) and outlined an equal number of serious misgivings. Prominent among the latter were issues relating to children. Indeed, the mayor suggested that a watchword for action, perhaps the prime one, relating to county government should be: "Is it good for children?"

Wharton declared children to be "our greatest resource" and, citing as his precedent former president Bill Clinton's decision to "end welfare as we know it," proposed some strong medicine for parental dereliction relating to the educational process. Basically, the county mayor is for statutory redefinition of parental-neglect laws to include — and penalize — such behavior on the part of custodial adults.

In an extended conversation with reporters after his address, Wharton elaborated on his remedy. Citing Clinton's welfare reforms again, the mayor said they had caused "a revolution in thinking." Limitations on welfare coverage were supplemented by day-care incentives, transportation incentives, and vocational courses in community colleges, so that government could say to the welfare parent: "What is it that stands in your way? No excuses!" Upon enrolling their children in school, custodial parents would be informed of a flexible schedule of PTO meetings and notified that they would be expected to attend. Transportation could be arranged, and failure to comply would be penalized like any other violation of law — up to and including incarceration.

As for the expense of enforcing this broadening of law, Wharton asked, "How can we afford not to do it?" He noted that he had just visited 40 uneducated, basically feral children locked up in Juvenile Court and said the expense of keeping them there would, if eliminated, take care of the necessary financial allocation. "You don't have to arrest everybody," he added. "Once you know the authority is there, folks will comply." It's much like laws requiring child-restraint devices in motor vehicles, he said. Selective prosecution has made that enlargement of the law work.

While noting that he wasn't proposing a tax increase just yet, Wharton said that a mere penny added to the current county property-tax rate would yield $1.7 million in annual revenues — more than enough to finance what he had in mind. Earlier in his talk, the mayor had been scornful of those politicians who "promise the world" and then say "no new taxes." They would prefer to burden government and the taxpayer with the needless expense of massive borrowing.

Whatever the cost, government could not shirk its duty, the county mayor said. He cited the Latin phrase parentis patria, meaning: "The state stands as a parent for all its children. Our law is clear. The state has the role and duty to step in."


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