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Black America's Crisis

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Black America's Crisis

August 21, 2005
Urban PolicyOther

Forty years after a controversial report, the question is whether we're any closer to facing the facts about poverty, race and single moms.

Read through the megazillion words on class, income mobility and poverty in the recent New York Times series "Class Matters," and you still won't grasp two of the most basic truths on the subject:

1. Entrenched, multigenerational poverty is largely black; and

2. It is intricately intertwined with the collapse of the nuclear family in the inner city.

By now, these facts shouldn't be hard to grasp. Almost 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. Those mothers are far more likely than married mothers to be poor, even after a post-welfare-reform decline in child poverty. They are also more likely to pass that poverty on to their children. Single motherhood is a largely low-income and disproportionately black problem.

The truth is that we are now a two-family nation, separate and unequal - one thriving and intact, and the other struggling, broken and far too often African-American.

So why does The Times, like so many who rail against inequality, fall silent on the relation between poverty and single-parent families? To answer that question - and to continue the confrontation with facts that Americans still prefer not to mention in polite company - you have to go back exactly 40 years. That was when a resounding cry of outrage echoed throughout Washington and the civil rights movement in reaction to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Department of Labor report warning that the ghetto family was in disarray.

Titled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," the prophetic report prompted civil rights leaders, academics, politicians and pundits to make a momentous - and, as time has shown, tragically wrong - decision about how to frame the national discussion about poverty.

To go back to the political and social moment before the battle broke out over the Moynihan report is to return to a time before the country's discussion of black poverty had hardened into fixed orthodoxies - before phrases like "blaming the victim," "self-esteem," "out-of-wedlock childbearing" and "teen pregnancy." While solving the black poverty problem seemed an immense political challenge, as a conceptual matter, it didn't seem like rocket science. Most analysts assumed that once the nation removed discriminatory legal barriers and expanded employment opportunities, blacks would advance, just as poor immigrants had.

Conditions for testing that proposition looked good. Between the 1954 Brown decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legal racism had been dismantled. And the economy was humming along; in the first five years of the '60s, the economy generated 7 million jobs.

Yet those most familiar with what was called "the Negro problem" were getting nervous. About half of all blacks had moved into the middle class by the mid-'60s, but now progress seemed to be stalling. The rise in black income relative to that of whites, steady throughout the '50s, was sputtering to a halt.

Policymakers had assumed that if male heads of household had jobs, women and children would be provided for. This no longer seemed true. Even while more black men were getting jobs, more black women were joining the welfare rolls. Mr. Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor, decided that a serious analysis was in order.

Mr. Moynihan argued that the rise in single-mother families was not due to a lack of jobs, but rather to a destructive vein in ghetto culture that could be traced back to slavery and Jim Crow discrimination. Though black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier had already introduced the idea in the 1930s, Mr. Moynihan's argument defied conventional social-science wisdom.

He also described the emergence of a "tangle of pathology," including delinquency, joblessness, school failure, crime and fatherlessness that characterized ghetto - or what would come to be called underclass - behavior. Mr. Moynihan knew the dangers these threats posed to "the basic socializing unit" of the family, because more than most social scientists, Mr. Moynihan understood what families do. They "shape their children's character and ability," he wrote. "By and large, adult conduct in society is learned as a child." What children learned in the "disorganized home[s]" of the ghetto, as he described through his forest of graphs, was that adults do not finish school, get jobs or, in the case of men, take care of their children or obey the law. Marriage, on the other hand, provides a "stable home" for children to learn common virtues.

Implicit in Mr. Moynihan's analysis was that marriage orients men and women toward the future, asking them not just to commit to each other but to plan, to earn, to save and to devote themselves to advancing their children's prospects. Single mothers in the ghetto, on the other hand, tended to drift into pregnancy and to float through the chaos around them. Such mothers are unlikely to "shape their children's character and ability" in ways that lead to upward mobility.

Separate and unequal families, in other words, meant that blacks would have their liberty, but that they would be strangers to equality. Hence, Mr. Moynihan's conclusion: "A national effort toward the problems of Negro Americans must be directed toward the question of family structure."

Despite President Lyndon B. Johnson's endorsement, by that summer the Moynihan report was under attack from all sides. Civil servants in the "permanent government" at Health, Education and Welfare and at the Children's Bureau muttered about the report's "subtle racism." Black leaders like Congress of Racial Equality director Floyd McKissick scolded that, rather than the family, "It's the damn system that needs changing."

Given the fresh wounds of segregation and the ugly tenaciousness of racism, the fear of white backsliding that one can hear in so many of Mr. Moynihan's critics is entirely understandable. Less forgivable was the refusal to grapple seriously - either at the time or in the months, years, even decades to come - with the basic cultural insight contained in the report: that ghetto families were at risk of raising generations of children unable to seize the opportunity that the civil rights movement had opened up for them.

Most memorably, the black activist William Ryan accused Mr. Moynihan of "blaming the victim," a phrase that would become the title of his 1971 book and the fear-inducing censor of future plain speaking about the ghetto's decay. For white liberals and the black establishment, poverty became a zero-sum game: either you believed, as they did, that there was a defect in the system, or you believed that there was a defect in the individual. It was as if critiquing the family meant that you supported inferior schools, even that you were a racist.

Over the next 15 years, the black family question actually became a growth industry inside academe, the foundations and the government. Scholars invented a fantasy family whose function was not to reflect truth, but to soothe injured black self-esteem and to bolster the emerging feminist critique of male privilege, bourgeois individualism and the nuclear family. In fact, some scholars continued, maybe the nuclear family was just a toxic white hang-up, anyway. No one asked what nuclear families did or how they prepared children for a modern economy. The important point was simply that they were not black.

Feminists, similarly fixated on overturning the "oppressive ideal of the nuclear family," also welcomed this dubious scholarship. Fretting about single-parent families was now not only racist, but also sexist, an effort to deny women their independence, their sexuality or both. As for the poverty of single mothers, that was simply more proof of patriarchal oppression.

The partisans of single motherhood got a perfect chance to test their theories, since the urban ghettos were fast turning into nuclear-family-free zones. Indeed, by 1980, 15 years after "The Negro Family," the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks had more than doubled, to 56 percent. In the ghetto, that number was considerably higher, as high as 66 percent in New York City.

Liberal advocates had two main ways of dodging the subject of family collapse while still addressing its increasingly alarming fallout. The first was to talk about children not as the offspring of individual mothers and fathers responsible for rearing them, but as an oppressed class in need of government programs. The second way was to talk instead about the epidemic of teen pregnancy.

There was just one small problem: There was no epidemic of teen pregnancy. There was an out-of-wedlock teen-pregnancy epidemic. Teenagers had gotten pregnant at even higher rates in the past. Back in the day, however, when they found out they were pregnant, girls had either gotten married or given their babies up for adoption.

Not this generation. They were used to seeing children growing up without fathers, and they felt no shame about arriving at the maternity ward with no rings on their fingers, even at 15.

Failing to define the problem accurately, advocates were in no position to find the solution. Teen pregnancy not only failed to go down, despite all the public attention, the tens of millions of dollars and the birth control pills that were thrown its way, but it actually went up. About 80 percent of those young girls who became mothers were single, and the vast majority would be poor.

Throughout the 1980s, the inner city continued to unravel. Child poverty stayed close to 20 percent, hitting a high of 22.7 percent in 1993. Welfare dependency continued to rise, soaring from 2 million families in 1970 to 5 million by 1995. By 1990, 65 percent of all black children were being born to unmarried women. By this point, no one doubted that most of these children were destined to grow up poor and to pass down the legacy of single parenting.

The only good news was that the bad news was so unrelentingly bad that the usual bromides and evasions could no longer hold. Something had to shake up what amounted to an ideological paralysis, and that something came from conservatives. Three thinkers in particular - Charles Murray, Lawrence Mead and Thomas Sowell - though they did not always write directly about the black family, effectively changed the conversation about it.

First, they did not flinch from blunt language in describing the wreckage of the inner city. Second, they pointed at the welfare policies of the 1960s as the cause of inner-city dysfunction, and in so doing, they made the welfare mother the public symbol of the ghetto's ills. And third, they believed that the poor would have to change their behavior instead of waiting for Washington to end poverty.

By the early 1990s, when the ghetto was at its nadir, public opinion had clearly turned. No one was more attuned to this shift than triangulator Bill Clinton, who made the family a centerpiece of his domestic policy and signed a welfare-reform bill that he had twice vetoed - one that included among its goals increasing the number of children living with their two married parents.

So, have we reached the end of the Moynihan report saga? That would be vastly overstating matters. Remember: 70 percent of black children are still born to unmarried mothers, and many academics, cultural leaders, organizations and even individuals of all races and classes cannot bring themselves to admit that marriage protects children.

Still, the nation is at a cultural inflection point that portends change. Though they always caution that "marriage is not a panacea," social scientists almost uniformly accept the research that confirms the benefits for children growing up with their own married parents. Welfare reform and tougher child-support regulations have reinforced the message of personal responsibility. There are raw numbers to support the case for optimism: Teen pregnancy, which started to decline in the mid-'90s in response to a crisper, teen-pregnancy-is-a-bad-idea cultural message, is at its lowest rate ever.

And finally, in the ghetto itself, there is a growing feeling that mother-only families don't work.

That's why people are lining up to see an aging comedian as he voices some not-very-funny opinions about parenting.

That's why so many young men are vowing to be the fathers they never had.

That's why there has been an uptick, albeit small, in the number of black children living with their married parents.