Strengthening Florida's families


Published: Sunday, January 12, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 11:48 p.m.

Florida has a tremendous army of individuals who make lasting differences in the lives of those in need.

Over the last four years, I have worked to encourage state government to listen to their ideas and incorporate them in our solutions. This administration is committed to removing obstacles so the enduring institutions of faith, family and friends can reach their amazing potential. The best and brightest ideas do not come from Tallahassee, but from citizens across our diverse state.

State government is an ally, not an adversary of positive change within each community. For example, transitioning child welfare services to local community agencies is one of the key solutions to reforming our current system.

While we have made progress, there's still work to be done. There are single mothers facing the demands of raising children and working, hopeful immigrants seeking a better life, and people whose lives are controlled by addiction.

Last year we collected a record $870 million in child support payments, more than $700 million went unpaid. We have 48,000 children in custody of the state due to abuse or neglect. Our annual Medicaid budget is $9.9 billion and rising. The state spends over $3.2 billion a year on criminal justice and corrections, with over 73,000 individuals in prison. There are over 137,000 youth involved in our criminal justice system. Each year in Florida, 80,000 children are born without a father in the home.

If we do not find new ways to deal with these growing issues, the demands placed on government will overwhelm our ability to provide other critical services. The further the family unit is weakened, the more government grows to try to provide a quick fix.

A clear lesson I learned my first term is when families and communities fail, there is a corresponding loss of freedom as individuals are forced to turn to government for help. In contrast, when families and communities are strong, they have much greater liberty.

Decades of studies show that children raised in healthy, supportive families are more likely to remain in school, less likely to fall prey to the destructive and demoralizing effects of drugs and reject crime as a solution to problems. It is critical to support families when challenges first arise, rather than helping them put the pieces together later.

Some examples of how we can strengthen families include: ensuring that good parenting courses and early education classes are more readily available, increasing workforce development collaboration with faith and non-profit organizations to help people along the path of self-sufficiency, encouraging families to spend more time together and to even consider opening their home to a foster child.

Government cannot do this alone. It is not our role to tell people how to live better lives but to govern in a way that creates greater opportunities and vibrant, growing economies that can provide higher paying jobs and increased education opportunities.

There are hundreds of high-quality services provided by the faith-based community all across Florida. Food pantries, clothing drives, after-school programs, substance abuse counseling and parenting classes are familiar examples of how our churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions are improving the lives of those who most need help.

Rather than a new series of government-imposed rules and regulations, we should look for ways to partner with faith and community-based groups to help them build on successful practices. Something as simple as religious leaders intensifying their efforts to provide research-based pre-marital counseling can help couples build a solid foundation for their future.

As we continue to find ways to promote stronger families, I invite you to write to me at jeb.bush@myflorida.com to share your thoughts and stories of good things happening in your community.

I am thankful for the opportunity to continue to serve Floridians, and hope that you will join this call to arms. In 2003, make the effort to spend more time with family, read to a child, volunteer at your neighborhood school, or visit with your elderly neighbor. Through simple tasks like these, we will make Florida a better neighborhood, a nicer place to live.

Jeb Bush is governor of Florida and was inaugurated to begin his second term this week.

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