What Part Family Plays in Poverty

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Almost 50 years ago, an ambitious young assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a doomsday-ish report warning of the consequences of the alarming rise of black single moms. He made a direct link between the rising poverty among blacks and the disintegration of the black nuclear family: “The Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” Today, the ratio of white kids born outside of marriage is about the same as it was for black children in Moynihan’s day. Meanwhile, the percentage of black children born to unmarried mothers has tripled.

Does this mean that these white families are heading for the same impoverishment as black families of the 60s? Or that three times as many black families are now living in poverty? This week the Urban Institute released an update of Moynihan’s report, finding the situation is a lot more complicated than the future senator imagined. “It’s quite striking that many of the problems Moynihan pointed to that highlighted the tremendous inequalities between black and white communities continue to persist,” says Gregory Acs, one of the authors of the study, along with Kenneth Braswell, executive director  of Fathers Incorporated, a non-profit organization that promotes responsible fatherhood.

The best way to improve the situation of black families and black men continues to be a vexed question, with experts as far afield as Bill Cosby and Michael Eric Dyson offering suggestions. There’s a camp that believes that poverty among the black community is a result of the fractured family unit. There’s evidence to support this: in 2010 more than 40% of single-mother families with children lived in poverty, while only about 9% of married-couple families with kids fell below the federal poverty level. Another view holds that if black—and other— families were less impoverished, they’d be more intact. That is, poverty is the cause of the splitting up, not the result.

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Moynihan was in the former camp: his solution for the “tangle of pathologies” that vexed the black community was to focus on rebuilding the family, which he called “the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community.” He believed that black neighborhoods had become matriarchal and that this would lead to further disenfranchised men and more community disintegration. His report, The Negro Family: the Case For National Action, remains both influential and controversial. (It was the provocation for the book Blaming the Victim, by William Ryan, for example.)

Dire as Moynihan’s report was, the Urban Institute’s update has some stats that make Moynihan’s figures look like a picnic:

·        In 1960, 20% of black children lived with their mothers but not their fathers; by 2010, over half of all black children lived in such families.
·        The share of white children living with their mothers but not their fathers climbed to 20% in 2010, up from 6% in 1960.
·         In 1960, more than 50% of all black women were married and living with their husbands as opposed to more than 65% of white and Hispanic women; by 2010, only a quarter of black women, 40% of Hispanic women, and 50% of white women lived with their spouses.

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But “The Moynihan Report Revisited” as it’s rather clumsily titled, also has some small glimmers of good news. Child poverty rates among African-Americans dropped massively after the 60s, reaching a low of 33% in 2000. It has since risen to 38%, largely  along with the recession. African American kids are completing high school at roughly the same rates as white kids and are much more likely to graduate from college than their forebears of 40 years ago. Neighborhoods have been officially desegregated, if not always in practice, according to the report. These gains have occurred even while married-parent families have become ever rarer. (In 2009, about 75% of black kids were born to an unwed mother.) Some experts suggest that this proves family structure has been overemphasized in social policy.

“Black child poverty fell drastically during the 1990s and then rose again during the 2000s,” notes Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. “Why? It wasn’t family structure that did it, it was the economy principally—and, economists would  say, the Earned Income Tax Credit.” The rise in white family dissolution has also not led to the kind of poverty that black communities struggle with, suggesting that single motherhood does not disadvantage everyone equally. For white children, poverty rates have followed the same pattern as for the black kids, although less drastically, even while family stability has been trending downwards. Cohen, who provided the chart below, points to the huge drop in poverty rates among black kids in the Census figures, during which time there was only a slight drop in the rate of single motherhood.

Poverty Rates

Acs, though, isn’t so sure about dismissing an unstable family structure as one of the causes of poverty. “Generally, when a couple doesn’t marry, there’s a reason and that does seem to filter through to the kids outcomes,” he says. A couple may split because of financial stress, but that will make the child they parented even poorer. However, it’s just one of many factors that’s causing the economic instability in the African American community, all of which have to be addressed. The job situation for women of all races has improved, so getting men jobs “may turn out to be more important than what you can do for families,” Acs says. But even that’s not a cure-all. “You have a lot of employed marriageable men who aren’t married,” he says. Better schools, more integrated neighborhoods and educating people out of the lingering racist attitudes are also key recommendations of the report.

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These were all things Moynihan’s report flicked at, but one of the issues the honorable future senator did not foresee was that black men would be sent to prison at the startling rate they have been. “By 2010,” notes the new report, “almost 1 in 6 black men had spent time in prison, compared with 1 in 33 white men.” This has largely been a product of the U.S.-wide crackdown on drug offenses, which has been shown to disproportionately affect the black community, and exacerbate all the other issues. “It’s hard to reintegrate into your family after you’ve been in prison,” says Acs “and incarceration trashes your employment prospects.” But the sky-high prison population has also coincided with a historic drop in crime, so this may be an even tougher nut to crack than keeping families together. Just recently, a tiny shard of light appeared on the horizon: in 2011, the number of black men in college exceeded the number of black men in prison for the first time since the 90s.

One modest step the report’s co-author Braswell would like to see is more coordination among social service agencies, which he says are generally structured to help mothers more than fathers. “A father will come to us with all the problems the report highlights—jobs, housing, relationship issues, education, money,” he says. “We don’t expect any one agency to be expert in all five issues. But if we could get the five agencies expert in each issue to work together on one individual, we could get a long way.”