WHAT WOULD SOCIETY BE like if the family found it difficult to perform its most basic functions? We are beginning to find out. Half of all marriages in this country end in divorce, and half of all children will spend a significant period with only one parent.

Startling and unsettling changes have already oc-curred in black family life, especially among the poor. Since the 1960’s, birth rates among blacks have fallen dramatically, but two out of every three black women having a first child are single, compared to one out of every six white women. Today, well over half of black children in this country are born to single women. Why are female-headed households multiplying now, when there is less discrimination and poverty than a couple of generations ago, when black family life was stronger?

The disruption of the black family today is, in exaggerated microcosm, a reflection of what has happened to American family life in general. Public anxiety has mounted with the near-doubling of the proportion of white children living with one parent (from 9 percent to 17 percent) since 1970. Single parents of all backgrounds are feeling the pressures – the sheer economics of raising children primarily on the depressed income of the mother (a large component of the so-called ”feminization of poverty”); the psychological and physical toll when one person, however advantaged, must be both mother and father, and the effects on children.

The stress on American family life was recently addressed by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York, on the 20th anniversary of his controversial ”Moynihan Report.” The original report confined its analysis to the black family. Moynihan, who in April delivered a series of lectures at Harvard on the family, said, ”I want to make clear this is not a black issue.” Indeed, just last month, the problem of increasing poverty among all the nation’s children was underscored in a major report from two Federal agencies.

Yet until recently, many blacks have had an almost visceral reaction to mention of black family problems. Wounds to the family were seen as the most painful effect of American racism. Many blacks and their supporters have regarded talk of black family weaknesses as tantamount to insult and smear. Some conservatives have taken signs of trouble in the black family as proof that the remaining problems of race are internal and have announced the equivalent of ”Physician, heal thyself.”

At the heart of the crisis lies the self-perpetuating culture of the ghetto. This destructive ethos began to surface 40 years ago with the appearance of permanent joblessness and the devaluation of working-class black men. As this nation’s post-World War II economy has helped produce a black middle class, it has also, ironically, been destroying the black working class and its family structure. Today, the process has advanced so far that renewal of the black family goes beyond the indispensable economic ingredients. The family’s return to its historic strength will require the overthrow of the complicated, predatory ghetto subculture, a feat demanding not only new Government approaches but active black leadership and community participation and commitment.

W HILE THIS crisis was building, it received almost no public attention, in part because of the notorious sensitivity of the subject. Yet 20 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke candidly about the black family, spelling out the ”alarming” statistics on ”the rate of illegitimacy,” the increase in female-headed households and the rise in families on welfare. The black family, King asserted, had become ”fragile, deprived and often psychopathic.”

King relied in part on the Moynihan report, written when the Senator was an Assistant Secretary of Labor. Many were stunned by what one critic called the report’s ”salacious ‘discovery’ ” – its discussion of illegitimacy, matriarchy and welfare and its view that black family structure had become, in its own words, a ”tangle of pathology” capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world. As a result, the report’s concern with remedies, including jobs, and its call for a national family policy were eclipsed.

The delay has been costly to blacks and to the country. When King spoke out, the statistics he characterized as alarming showed that two-and-a-half times as many black families as white ones were headed by women. Today, it is almost three-and-a-half times as many – 43 percent of black families compared with 13 percent of white families. Since 1970, out-of-wedlock births have become more prevalent throughout society, almost doubling among whites to 11 percent. But among blacks, births to single women have risen from 38 percent in 1970 to 57 percent in 1982.

While families headed by women have often proved just as effective as two-parent families in raising children, the most critical danger facing female-headed households is poverty. Seventy percent of black children under the age of 18 who live in female-headed families are being brought up in poverty. In 1983, the median income for such households was $7,999, compared to almost $32,107 for two-parent families of all races, in which both spouses worked. Without the large increase in female-headed households, black family income would have increased by 11 percent in the 1970’s. Instead, it fell by 5 percent.

As last month’s report from the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office pointed out, ”The average black child can expect to spend more than five years of his childhood in poverty; the average white child, 10 months.”

Buried beneath the statistics is a world of complexity originating in the historic atrocity of slavery and linked to modern discrimination and its continuing effects. What has obscured the problem is its delicacy and its uniqueness. The black family has been an issue in search of leadership. Discussion of problems in the black family has been qualitatively different from debates on voting rights or job discrimination. Fear of generating a new racism has foreclosed whatever opportunity there may have been to search for relief, driving the issue from the public agenda and delaying for a generation the search for workable solutions. Today, when nearly half of all black children are being raised in poverty, further delay is unthinkable.

Blacks themselves have been stunned by recent disclosures of the extent of the growth of poor, alienated female-headed households. The phenomenon is outside the personal experience of many black adults. Many have overcome deep poverty and discrimination only because of the protection and care of stable traditional and extended families. As recently as the early 1960’s, 75 percent of black households were husband-and-wife families. The figure represents remarkable continuity – it is about the same as those reported in census records from the late 19th century. Indeed, the evidence suggests that most slaves grew up in two-parent families reinforced by ties to large extended families.

The sharp rise in female-headed households involves mostly those with young children and began in the mid-1960’s. The phenomenon -while by no means a trend that permeates the entire black community – affects a significant portion of young people today, many of whom are separated economically, culturally and socially from the black mainstream. They have been raised in the worst of the rapidly deteriorating ghettos of the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, in cities or neighborhoods that lost first the white and then the black middle and working classes. Drugs, crime and pimps took over many of the old communities. Blacks remaining were often trapped and isolated, cut off from the values of the black working poor and middle class – where husbands often work two jobs, wives return to work almost immediately after childbirth and extended families of interdependent kin are still more prevalent than among whites.

A complete explanation of black family disruption does not emerge from a roundup of the usual suspects, including the many factors that make American family life generally less stable these days: the ease and relative acceptance of separation, divorce and childbirth outside of marriage; the decline of religion and other traditional family-reinforcing institutions, and welfare rules that discourage family unity and penalize economic initiative. Anecdotal explanations -the girl-mothers are said to want to love and receive affection from a baby; the boy-fathers reportedly brag about making babies – are also inadequate. Such anecdotes do not explain how the strong presumption in favor of marriage before childbearing has been overcome so often.

The emergence of single women as the primary guardians of the majority of black children is a pronounced departure that began to take shape following World War II. Ironically, the women and children – the most visible manifestations of the change – do not provide the key to the transformation. The breakdown begins with working-class black men, whose loss of function in the post-World War II economy has led directly to their loss of function in the family.

In the booming post-World War I economy, black men with few skills could find work. Even the white South, which denied the black man a place in its wage economy, could not deprive him of an economic role in the farm family. The poorest, most meanly treated sharecropper was at the center of the work it took to produce the annual crop.

As refugees from the South, the generation of World War I migrants differed in crucial respects from the World War II generation. The World War I arrivals were enthusiastic, voluntary migrants, poor in resources but frequently middle class in aspiration. They were at the bottom of a society that denied them the right to move up very far, but they got a foothold in a burgeoning economy.

Family stability was the rule. According to a 1925 study in New York City, five out of six children under the age of six lived with both parents. Nationally, a small middle class emerged, later augmented by the jobs generated by World War II, service in the armed forces and the postwar prosperity that sometimes filtered down to urban blacks. Today’s inner-city blacks were not a part of these historical processes. Some are the victims of the flight of manufacturing jobs. Others were part of the last wave of Southern migrants or their offspring, arriving in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They often migrated not because of new opportunities but because of the evaporation of old ones. Mechanized farming made their labor superfluous in agriculture, but unlike the blacks of earlier generations and European immigrants, later black migrants were also superfluous in the postwar cities as manufacturing work for the less-skilled and poorly educated declined. Today’s postindustrial society, demanding sophisticated preparation and training, has only exacerbated these problems.

This permanent, generational joblessness is at the core of the meaning of the American ghetto. The resulting, powerful aberration transforms life in poor black communities and forces everything else to adapt to it. The female-headed household is only one consequence. The underground economy, the drug culture, epidemic crime and even a highly unusual disparity between the actual number of men and women -all owe their existence to the cumulative effect of chronic joblessness among men. Over time, deep structural changes have taken hold and created a different ethos.

An entire stratum of black men, many of them young, no longer performs its historic role in supporting a family. Many are unemployed because of the absence of jobs, or unemployable because their ghetto origins leave them unprepared for the job market. Others have adapted to the demands of the ghetto – the hustle, the crime, the drugs. But the skills necessary to survive in the streets are those least acceptable in the outside world.

The macho role cultivated in the ghetto makes it difficult for many black men, unable to earn a respectable living, to form households and assume the roles of husband and father. Generationally entrenched joblessness joined with the predatory underground economy form the bases of a marginal life style. Relationships without the commitments of husband and father result.

This qualitative change in fundamental family relationships could have occurred only under extreme and unrelentingly destructive conditions. Neither poverty nor cyclical unemployment alone could have had this impact. After all, poverty afflicts most of the world’s people. If economic and social hardships could in themselves destroy family life, the family could not have survived as the basic human unit throughout the world.

The transformation in poor black communities goes beyond poverty. These deep changes are anchored in a pervasively middle-class society that associates manhood with money. Shocking figures show a long, steep and apparently permanent decline in black men’s participation in the labor force, even at peak earning ages. In 1948, before the erosion of unskilled and semiskilled city and rural jobs had become pronounced, black male participation in the labor force was 87 percent, almost a full point higher than that of white males.

In the generation since 1960, however, black men have experienced a dramatic loss of jobs – dropping from an employment rate of 74 percent to 55 percent in 1982, according to the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington. While white male employment slipped in that period, much of the white decline, unlike that of the blacks, is attributed to early retirement. Since 1960, the black male population over 18 has doubled, but the number employed has lagged badly.

These figures tell a story not only of structural unemployment, but of structural changes in low-income black families. The unemployment rates of young blacks have been the most devastating and militate against the establishment of stable marriages. This year, for instance, black teen-agers overall had an unemployment rate of 39 percent, two-and-a-half times that of white teen-agers. The loss of roles as workers has led to the acceptance of other roles for financial gain, many of them antisocial. Aside from the fact that large numbers of young men are imprisoned, disabled by drugs or otherwise marginal or unavailable as marriage partners, there is an unusual disparity between the sheer numbers of black men and black women. Among whites, the ratio of men to women does not change significantly until age 50, when men’s shorter life expectancy creates a gap. But among blacks, beginning at age 20, women outnumber men significantly enough to have a major impact upon the possibility of marriage.

Some argue persuasively that the female-headed family is an adaptation that facilitates coping with hardship and demographics. This seems undeniable as an explanation, but unsatisfactory as a response. Are we willing to accept an adaptation that leaves the majority of black children under the age of 6 -the crucial foundation years of life – living in poverty? Given a real choice, poor blacks, like everybody else, would hardly choose coping mechanisms over jobs, educational opportunity and family stability.

Y ET, THE REMEDY for ghetto conditions is not as simple as providing necessities and opportunities. The ghetto is not simply a place. It has become a way of life. Just as it took a complex of social forces to produce ghetto conditions, it will take a range of remedies to dissolve them. The primary actors unavoidably are the Government and the black community itself.

The Government is deeply implicated in black family problems. Its laws enforced slavery before the Civil War and afterward created and sanctioned pervasive public and private discrimination. The effects on the black family continue to this day. Given the same opportunities as others, blacks would almost certainly have sustained the powerful family traditions they brought with them from Africa, where society itself is organized around family.

Quite apart from its historical role, the Government cannot avoid present responsibility. It can choose, as it now does, to ignore and delay the search for ways to break the hold of the ghetto, such as early intervention with young children and training and education for the hard-core poor. Although programs capable of penetrating ghetto conditions have proved elusive, the current Government posture of disengagement is folly. With the poor growing at a faster rate than the middle class, the prospect is that succeeding generations will yield more, not fewer, disadvantaged blacks. An American version of a lumpenproletariat (the so-called underclass), without work and without hope, existing at the margins of society, could bring down the great cities, sap resources and strength from the entire society and, lacking the usual means to survive, prey upon those who possess them.

Perhaps the greatest gap in corrective strategies has been the failure to focus on prevention. Remedies for deep-rooted problems – from teen-age pregnancy to functional illiteracy – are bound to fail when we leave the water running while we struggle to check the overflow. A primary incubator for ghetto problems is the poor, female-headed household. Stopping its proliferation would prevent a spectrum of often-intractable social and economic problems.

Remedies often focus at opposite ends – either on the provision of income or of services. Neither seems wholly applicable to entrenched ghetto conditions. Public assistance alone, leaving people in the same defeatist environment, may reinforce the status quo. The service orientation has been criticized for using a disproportionate amount of the available resources relative to the results obtained.

More appropriate solutions may lie between income and service strategies. Programs are likely to be more successful if they provide a rigorous progression through a series of steps leading to ”graduation.” This process, including a period of weaning from public assistance, might prove more successful in achieving personal independence. Such programs would be far more disciplined than services to the poor generally have been. They would concentrate on changing life styles as well as imparting skills and education. The test of their effectiveness would be the recipients’ progress in achieving economic self-sufficiency.

To reach boys and men, especially the hard-core unemployed, more work needs to be done to cull the successful aspects of training and job programs. Effective training models need to be systematically replicated. It is untenable to abandon the hard-core unemployed, as the Reagan Administration has done, by moving to a jobs program that focuses on the most, rather than the least, trainable. Ghetto males will not simply go away. As we now see, they will multiply themselves.

The welfare program – a brilliant New Deal invention now stretched to respond to a range of problems never envisioned for it – often deepens dependence and lowers self-esteem. Although welfare enjoys little support anywhere along the political spectrum, it continues for lack of an alternative.

Reconceived, a public-assistance program could reach single mothers and offer them vehicles to self-sufficiency. The counterparts of young women on welfare are working downtown or attending high school or junior college on grants to low-income students. Far from foreclosing such opportunities because a woman has a child, public assistance should be converted from the present model of passive maintenance to a program built around education or work and prospective graduation.

Studies of the hard-core unemployed have shown women on welfare to be the most desirous of, open to and successful with training and work. Some, especially with young children, will remain at home, but most want work or training because it is the only way out of the welfare life. Some promising experiments in work and welfare are underway in such cities as San Diego and Baltimore. But the old ”workfare” approach, when administered as another form of welfare with no attempt to break the cycle of dependency, is self-defeating. Gainful employment, even if in public jobs for those unaccommodated by the private sector, would have beneficial effects beyond earn- ing a living. Jobs and training would augment self-esteem by exposing women to the values and discipline associated with work, allowing them to pass on to their children more than their own disadvantages.

The ghetto, more than most circumscribed cultures, seeks to perpetuate itself and is ruthless in its demand for conformity. However, it contains institutions of the larger society -schools, churches, community groups. With minor additional resources, schools, for example, could incorporate more vigorous and focused ways to prevent teen-age pregnancy. If pregnancy occurs, girls could be motivated to remain in school, even after childbirth, thus allowing an existing institution to accomplish what training programs in later life do more expensively and with greater difficulty.

Schools and other community institutions also need to become much more aggressive with boys on the true meaning and responsibilities of manhood, and the link between manhood and family. Otherwise, many boys meet little resistance to the ghetto message that associates manhood with sex but not responsibility.

Most important, nothing can substitute for or have a greater impact than the full-scale involvement of the black community. Respect for the black family tradition compels black initiative. Today, blacks are responding. Many black organizations are already involved, including the National Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Council of Negro Women and the National Urban Coalition. In 1983, the country’s major black leaders endorsed a frank statement of the problems of the black family and a call for solutions. The statement, published by the Joint Center for Political Studies, a black research center in Washington, represented the first consensus view by black leadership on the problems of the black family. Significantly, it went beyond a call for Government help, stressing the need for black leadership and community efforts.

With the increase in the number of black public officials, many black mayors, legislators and appointed officials control some of the resources that could help shape change. Although they cannot redesign the welfare system by themselves, for example, some are in a position to experiment with model projects that could lead to more workable programs -such as supplementing welfare grants with training or work opportunities for single mothers; promoting family responsibility and pregnancy prevention for boys and girls through local institutions, and encouraging the completion of school for single teen-aged parents.

The new black middle class, a product of the same period that saw the weakening of the black family, still has roots in the ghetto through relatives and friends. From churches, Girl Scout troops and settlement houses to civil-rights organizations, Boys’ Clubs and athletic teams, the work of family reinforcement can be shared widely. The possibilities for creative community intervention are many – from family planning and counseling and various roles as surrogate parents and grandparents, to sex education, community day care and simple, but crucial, consciousness-raising. Most important is passing on the enduring values that form the central content of the black American heritage: hard work, education, respect for family, and, notwithstanding the denial of personal opportunity, achieving a better life for one’s children.

Correction: July 14, 1985
Sunday, Late City Final Edition In Eleanor Holmes Norton’s article ”Restoring the Traditional Black Family” (June 2), a passage dealing with the availability of marriage partners was misleading. It should have read: With large numbers of young men imprisoned, disabled by drugs or otherwise marginal and unavailable as marriage partners, there is an unusual disparity between the sheer numbers of marriageable black men and black women.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Carter Administration, is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.


About The Author


Related posts

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x