A continuing crisis plagues Arkansas. Like a snake eating its tail, poverty, addiction and mental illness, teen pregnancy, sexual violence against women, and low educational achievement perpetuate themselves as a result of entrenched conservative thinking. Costs for addressing these problems continue to skyrocket while the state’s earning power lingers near the bottom.
Where do we cut the snake?
Arkansas ranks 48th out of 50 states in terms of poverty. In 2015, 19.1% percent of the state’s households—one fifth—have incomes below the federal poverty line of $24,250 for a family of four. For 2016, the state’s population of 2,887,337 included 550,508 people living in poverty.
In a direct correlation to the poverty rate, the state ranks 39 out of 50 states in how well students are educated. The state slips further down the scale for persons 25 years of age when considering the following factors: Only 84.8% graduate high school. Only 21.1% obtain a bachelor’s degree, a ranking that puts Arkansas at 48th out of 50. And only 7.5% obtain graduate degrees, a rank of 49 out of 50.
We hover near the bottom at 46 in terms of mental illness in a compilation of 15 factors including all ages, availability of treatment, and addiction rates. Between 2010 and 2014, over one third of teens in need of mental health treatment did not receive it while over 53% of adults did not. Only 20% of Arkansas residents with drug dependence and 10% with alcohol dependence received treatment.
The state consistently ranks in the top five for teen pregnancies with up to 80 births per 1000 occurring among teen girls ages 15 to 19. Of these, 60% are white, 27% are black, and 11% are Hispanic. Counties with the highest rates included Sevier, Nevada, Arkansas, St. Francis, Mississippi, Jackson, and Randolph.
According to a 2014 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures:
Children born to teen parents are more likely to enter the child welfare or juvenile justice systems and to become teen parents themselves. Every year, thousands of young Arkansans enter one or both systems. Research shows that, nationwide, the children of teen mothers are twice as likely to be placed in foster care as their peers born to slightly older parents. Sons of teen mothers are 2.2 times more likely to be incarcerated than the sons of mothers aged 20 to 21.
The crisis becomes most apparent in the number of Arkansas children in foster care. From March 2015 to March 2016, the total number of available and in-use beds in foster homes increased from 2,801 to 3,306, but the number of foster children also increased, from 4,178 to 4,791. A 2016 report states that substance abuse by caregivers accounts for over 50% of children in foster care.
Despite such high rates of teen pregnancies, many Arkansas school districts do not provide any sex education. Many others offer abstinence-only education including a virginity pledge (14 districts), a ridiculous non-starter since census records show that over 52% of Arkansas teens are sexually active. Only seven school districts provide comprehensive sex education addressing contraceptives, sexually transmitted infection, abortion, and sexual orientation.
The Centers for Disease Control report that 37.4% to 38.5% of women in Arkansas experience at least one event of sexual violence during their lifetimes. These experiences include rape, sexual coercion, and/or unwanted sexual contact. Among sexually active teens, 18% of females report acts of violence (being hit, slammed into something, or injured with an object or weapon on purpose by someone they were dating) and 16% reported being raped.
Are Arkansas citizens somehow genetically predisposed to suffer these conditions? Is it something in the water? Or might the answer be found in the conservative mindset of a majority of Arkansas citizens?
Arkansas ranks 5th in the number of churches per capita. Seventy percent of adults define themselves as ‘highly religious’ with 65% saying they pray daily and 77% saying they believe in God with absolute certainty. The predominant religion practiced in Arkansas is Southern Baptist, a conservative Protestant sect which believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Predictably, any push for sex education and contraceptives in public schools provokes conservative outrage. By religious thinking, unwanted pregnancies serve as punishment for illicit sex. The burden borne by women in unwanted pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare is God’s retaliation for the sins of Eve. As stated in Southern Baptist doctrine, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.” Prevention either through birth control or abortion upends the natural order of things as ordained by God.
The prevailing idea of conservative parents is that talking about sex and especially advocating for birth control of any kind creates a permissive attitude wherein teens are more likely to have sex. Data clearly dispute this belief. But the refusal to accept widely accepted evidence about the effectiveness of sex ed fits perfectly with the greater mindset of religious conservatives: willful ignorance about any and all information that doesn’t square with religious teachings.
Under the belief that addiction or non-marital sexual activity are moral failings, many efforts to address non-marital sex, sexual abuse or substance abuse rely on faith-based programs. Yet as noted by a counselor with twenty years in faith-based addiction treatment, “Often times, Christian programs view the secular approach to recovery as counterproductive to their message and will often discredit and even disregard medical or empirical based advice to addiction recovery.”
While embracing some aspects of modern science and the advances of civilization such as automobiles, cell phones, DVRs, and medical progress, conservatives refuse to acknowledge other key findings of our times. Early religions strictly regulated a woman’s sexual activity out of concern for proving paternity and reducing conflict between competing males, among other things. None of that matters today. Genetic testing quickly solves questions of paternity. But religion has become so institutionalized its practitioners can’t back up far enough to consider its origins or usefulness.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that teen pregnancy leads to lack of education which in turn leads to poor employment opportunities, or that a state with a high rate of poorly educated adults won’t attract many employers. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that poorly educated people with poor job opportunities are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol or suffer other forms of mental illness. Inadequate nutrition also plays a role, another cause and result of mental illness and poverty.
Further, an embattled position in poverty with subpar education leads people directly to unreasoned fear of Other—xenophobia and racism.
We have to start with the head of the snake. If we hold any hope of interrupting this vicious cycle, our state and national educational standards must require sex education. Such requirements must be imposed even in private, religious, and home school settings.
The requirements can’t stop there. All children must be required to learn the basics of science, history, political science, and other fields that serve as major elements in critical thinking about the modern world. While the state cannot dictate whether someone embraces any particular religion, we can dictate that our children are adequately prepared to make an informed choice about what to believe.
We cannot allow reactionary religious beliefs and tribalism to undo what civilization has achieved thus far.
The hue and cry against such reforms in education will be loud and long. State and federal legislators will be hard pressed to maintain a firm stance in the face of entrenched dogmatic beliefs. It will take true leaders to enact reforms in a time when leadership seems missing from public life. That means we must elect educated progressives who will carry the weight. The future of our nation depends on it.
 “Say no to sex, most state districts teach,” Ginny Monk. Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Sunday September 24, 2017. Page 1.
 “Children in foster care in Arkansas reaches all-tine high.” Brian Fanney. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 22, 2016. Online access October 18, 2017
 “Say no to sex, most state districts teach”