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The alarming crisis of fatherless families hasn't hit Utah yet, but that is little reason to celebrate.

The "Kids Count Data Book," an annual report by the national Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows clearly that trouble is coming, slowly but surely. This despite the fact Utah has fewer births to unwed teenagers and fewer single-parent families than any other state.The early warning signs lie in the education level of the very young, those 10 and under. According to the report, 36 percent of Utah's fourth-graders scored below basic reading levels and 33 percent scored below basic math levels in tests conducted in 1992.

Both figures are below the national rate and are disturbing indicators. As the study shows, a lack of education correlates directly with declining incomes and with a rise in the number of single-parent families. That, in turn, translates into more children raised in poverty and without the support of a father.

Ultimately, that spells disaster for society, as the rest of the nation already has demonstrated.

Nationwide, from 1969 to 1993, the number of households headed by single women rose almost in direct proportion with the declining economic fortunes of young men. Nationwide, nearly one-third of men ages 25 to 34 don't earn enough to meet the poverty level for a family of four. That's up from only 13.6 percent in 1969. During the same period, the number of children raised by only their mothers has doubled to 23.3 percent.

In a high-tech, fast-paced world, men with high school diplomas or less no longer can earn enough to support their offspring. Poverty, however, doesn't induce them to stop procreating. Rather, the tendency is for them to abandon their responsibilities and to lose faith in themselves. The report also shows a strong correlation between income and marriage. Of the men over 30 who earn $50,000 or more, 83 percent are married. Of those earning less than $10,000, only 43 percent were married.

Inferior education, therefore, is an indicator of future trouble for society at large.

How important is a strong, responsible father? The report shows children raised without an adult male are five times more likely to be poor as well as more likely to drop out of high school, become unwed teenage parents and end up in foster care or in trouble with the law than children raised in families where a male is present.

Unfortunately, much of the debate about welfare reform in Congress seems to be void of any emphasis on fathers or of any early intervention to keep them from a life of low esteem and trouble. While the education and training of women also is of great importance, the report clearly demonstrates that many of the nation's problems can't be addressed without considering fathers.

That is important information for Utahns anxious to maintain the state's quality of life.