The statistics by themselves are dismaying: currently, more than 60 percent of black infants are born outside of wedlock; almost as many black families are headed by women, and the majority of black children live only with their mothers. These figures are three to five times those for white Americans, and at least three times the statistics for blacks of a generation ago. Since Daniel Patrick Moynihan released his famous report on The Negro Family almost a quarter-century ago, terms like “breakdown” and “crisis” have pervaded discussions of black domestic life.1
From Emancipation until the mid-1950s, black families remained remarkably stable. Despite low incomes and uncertain employment, most black households had two parents in residence. While rates among blacks for matrifocal families and out-of-wedlock births always exceeded those for other races, in 1950 they were still below 20 percent. This would seem to cast doubt on the view, advanced by Moynihan and others—including E. Franklin Frazier, Kenneth Clark, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—that family instability persists as a heritage of slavery. On the contrary, arrangements imposed by owners were never accepted by the slaves themselves; once freed, blacks sought the durable unions they had been denied.2 At all events, changes that began after 1950 cannot easily be termed a plantation legacy. Moreover, none of the other explanations advanced for the dramatic changes in black life since the early 1950s seems wholly convincing. In this and a subsequent article, I will examine some recent books and reports that consider black family stability and related conditions, including employment, segregation, and attitudes and practices concerning race. Several themes recur throughout the discussions of these conditions, all of them the subject of much debate.
—Since the black population is disproportionately poor, statistics on family structure may express class conditions rather more than behavior based on race.
—Since the number of single-parent households has been growing at about the same rate for both races, the trend may be national rather than distinctively racial. In fact, relative to the white figures, the black ratio of out-of-wedlock births has been steadily declining.
—While the years since 1950 have seen important changes in residential and employment patterns, segregation remains a fact of life and has an influence on black behavior.
Risking the Future, a report of the National Research Council, emphasizes the pronounced differences between the races in youthful sexual activity, pregnancies, and births. Disparities like those shown in Table A (see page 27) remain even when levels of income and education are taken into account.
Three-quarters of all black women begin sexual activity before they are eighteen, compared with half of their white counterparts. This higher incidence, combined with less frequent use of contraception, means twice as many blacks as whites become pregnant. In an even greater imbalance, births to unmarried black teen-agers are four times the white rate. By age eighteen, one of every four unmarried black women has become a mother, and more than 40 percent are mothers by the time they reach their early twenties. More than 90 percent of all unmarried teen-agers are now choosing to keep their babies; among blacks, virtually all do. In consequence, over half of all black women who head families have never been married, while that is the case with only one in seven whites.
The fastest-growing group is the three-generation household: usually a teen-aged mother, with one or more children, sharing a crowded apartment with her own mother, now a grandparent in her thirties. These arrangements arise because welfare agencies are reluctant to provide independent housing for parents who are minors, although they do get food stamps and stipends. Since 1970, black multi-generation households have increased threefold. Three-quarters of the younger mothers have never been married, and most have dropped out of school to bear and care for their babies. So early a start on single parenthood can only perpetuate poverty. Extended families including aunts and cousins who can help with the children, often a recourse in the past, are less evident in today’s cities. Fathers, many of them equally young, may drop by but are seldom a continuous presence. Few of these mothers are in a position to give their children the support they will need to survive in unpromising surroundings. Even if they press for better schools and other services, they lack the power to compete successfully for them. (The growth of multi-generation families has also intensified the problem of homeless households. In many cases, the teen-aged mother brings her infant into an apartment already crowded with her younger brothers and sisters. After a while, she is told she will have to go, which usually means to a welfare hotel. No one opposes providing homes for the homeless; if nothing else, the children deserve a decent place to live. At the same time, a commitment to give housing to anyone who bears a baby may not be the best way to discourage teen-agers from starting families.)
While these observations may apply to upward of half of all black youths, there is also the other half. If early parenthood is often tolerated, it is hardly universal. Nor does sexual activity mean most black teen-agers want to have babies. Risking the Future points out that while more black youngsters do become pregnant, at least since the 1950s the proportion who end up giving birth (51 percent) has not differed markedly from the rate for whites (46 percent). By the same token, almost as many black teen-agers choose to have abortions: 35 percent, compared with 40 percent for whites. Nor does the abortions-to-births ratio vary greatly between the races: 725 per 1,000 for white teen-agers as against 677 for blacks. Moreover, by their mid-twenties, black women become less disposed toward having children. At ages twenty-five to twenty-nine, the ratio of abortions to births for blacks is 591 per 1,000, compared with a much lower 185 per 1,000 for whites. This would suggest that at least half of young black women have no wish for early motherhood.
What distinguishes those who don’t? I know of no convincing sociological explanation that would answer the question. We might visualize two school friends, both of whom are poor and have become pregnant. One will decide to have and keep her baby, and perhaps several others, spending much of her adult life on the welfare rolls. Her friend will arrange for an abortion at a public clinic, finish school, and obtain a promising job. (She may later marry and become a mother, although the more successful her career, the greater the odds of a separation or divorce.) Why the two take different routes cannot be analyzed with any certainly. We can invoke phrases like “self-esteem,” but the interplay of character and circumstance are as elusive here as with all human decisions. What is clear is that many black women are doing well professionally. Nor is being a single mother necessarily a barrier: 38 percent of black women who head families also have full-time employment, a figure not very far from the 49 percent of white women in comparable situations.3
Unfortunately, Risking the Future says very little about men, many of them also very young, who take part in these pregnancies. It is as if their behavior—particularly their seeming aversion to contraception—is beyond remedy. In Families in Peril, Marian Wright Edelman asks, “Where are the black fathers?” The sad fact is that black men are less likely than white men to feel sustained responsibility for the children they produce. “An increase in the marital rate among young black men to the white level,” Edelman writes, “would reduce the proportion of fatherless young black families by between one-half and two-thirds.” As matters now stand, among black men aged twenty-five to thirty-four, only 39 percent are married and living with their wives, a far cry from the figure of 62 percent for whites. She shows that black men are more likely to be in prisons or the military, or die at an early age. The fact that upward of 20 percent are missed by the census would point up their lack of stable jobs or even settled addresses. Moreover, of those black men the census manages to reach, fewer than half have full-time jobs.
Thus Edelman feels that the task is less one of persuading more black men to marry than of providing the economic prospects that have traditionally shored up two-parent homes. One can’t object to that, although stable income and employment are not the whole story. Indeed, her proposal comes at a time when even people with good jobs are taking a more transitory view of marriage. And here, too, race would seem to intrude: black men in professional positions are twice as likely to divorce as their white colleagues, and fewer of them remarry.
Andrew Billingsley argues in The State of Black America, the report of a 1987 Urban League symposium, that unmarried motherhood is not the problem of a single race. He points out that “white teens in America have a higher rate of out-of-wedlock births than those of any of the other western industrialized nations.” Even if the black rate has always been higher, he says, the cause lies “in the structure of American society, not inside black families.” The figures in Tables B and C (see page 28), which I have derived from government documents, certainly show that out-of-wedlock births and households headed by women have risen markedly among whites during the last thirty-five years.
And from 1970 to 1985, the unwed birthrate for white teen-agers rose by almost 90 percent, while the rate for blacks actually fell by a few points. In fact, the figures Moynihan cited in 1965 when he called the majority of black families “highly unstable” were not much higher than those now being recorded for whites. Still, the fact that 61 percent of black children are being born out of wedlock poses unprecedented problems.
The continuing increase in single-parent families and out-of-wedlock births clearly derives from tendencies affecting the society as a whole. Billingsley nowhere explains why black rates remain substantially higher, but seems to suggest that we cannot expect black behavior to change so long as the overall culture continues on its current course. In fact, in comparison with whites, the black population has much fewer out-of-wedlock births than it did a generation ago. Nor should this be surprising: it is easier to end a pregnancy now than to preserve a marriage. As was noted earlier, black teen-agers obtain abortions almost as often as their white counterparts.
A common response to Moynihan’s The Negro Family was that he did not take sufficient account of the impact of class on family stability. As one critic put it:
The habit of analyzing data by color rather than income encourages the tendency to attribute to race-related factors differences that may in fact be due to income level…. It is difficult to be sure how much—if any—difference would remain in proportions of female-headed families if really sensitive comparisons were made between Negroes and whites on the same income level.4
I find it curious—but also revealing—that so little effort has been made to compare with blacks white persons having the same social and economic attributes. Statistics are certainly available. To start, we know that most blacks are not poor by the federal standards defining poverty: if 28 percent of black families have incomes below the poverty line, another 46 percent have earnings over $20,000 a year. By the same token, we know that the nation’s poverty population is not predominantly black. While black families are four times more likely than whites to have incomes below the official poverty level, whites still account for more than half of the poverty population. Thus in 1986 there were approximately the same number of white and black single mothers—1,322,000 and 1,383,000—with incomes below the poverty line, although blacks made up 12 percent of the population.
However, the two impoverished groups were not strictly comparable. Among the white mothers, 46 percent had only one child, whereas 71 percent of the black mothers had two or more children. This suggests that for white single mothers, poverty is more apt to be a temporary state since they will usually go to work after bearing one child. Only 36 percent of white women who head households fall in the poverty group, compared with 56 percent of black women who are heads of families. So if more black mothers are poor or on welfare, it is because more of them started having children earlier, often leaving school or jobs to do so. Also, since more have never been married, they find it harder to make claims on the fathers of their children. As Table A shows, twice as many white mothers as black receive support payments.
On the whole, then, the white and black poverty groups come across as separate populations. More than two-thirds of families among the black poor are headed by women, whereas only 36 percent of poor white households are. Low-income white families are more likely to consist of aged couples, or have a disabled or unemployed husband, with the wife bringing in low earnings or none at all. In addition, poorer whites tend to live outside metropolitan areas, where living costs are lower. In fact, where family composition is concerned, racial differences recur at every level. In the relatively well-off range of $30,000 to $40,000, twice as many of the black households are headed by women. When education is the measure, the racial gap is even greater. Black women who have completed college have a three times greater chance of heading households on their own. Being better off does not seem to favor marital success among blacks. Black men in professional positions are twice as prone to broken marriages as their white colleagues, and fewer of them remarry. These findings would suggest that even with class factors held constant, race has a role of its own to play.
One clue is contained in Risking the Future, which found that black teen-agers who attend integrated schools are less likely to engage in early sex. In fact, in such schools, black and white pupils showed “only modest differences in the probability of sexual intercourse.” Teen-aged parenthood is most pronounced in segregated settings, where schools and housing and acquaintances are almost entirely within one’s own race:
Blacks in these [segregated] communities report a greater tolerance for sexual activity outside marriage, they rate marriage as less important, and they perceive a greater tolerance for nonmarital childbearing.
William Julius Wilson, in The Truly Disadvantaged, comes to much the same view. He finds that blacks who live in urban slums have more out-of-wedlock births than poor whites with similar income and educational levels. The reason, he concludes, is that poor blacks tend to live in virtually all-black neighborhoods, whereas poorer whites are not concentrated in a comparable way. Wilson notes that in the country’s five largest cities, only 32 percent of the poor whites live in parts the census designates as “poverty areas,” whereas 85 percent of the poor blacks do. He suggests that the higher rates for blacks reflect a “social isolation” that poor whites are less likely to experience. I think this is an accurate assessment, and I will return to it when examining residential segregation.
Since 1950, the average weekly wages of black men have risen from 55 percent of whites’ earnings to 73 percent. Economic advances for blacks began with the migration to the North, which offered factory jobs, often at union rates. A related cause was improved education, which also came with the exodus from the South. Even so, the current gap of 27 percent needs to be explained. Some of it, obviously, derives from the fact that blacks tend to be relegated to lower-paying jobs. However, the question of discrimination persists: How much less pay than whites do blacks receive for comparable work? A recent report prepared for the US Commission on Civil Rights, The Economic Progress of Black Men in America, uses controls in its equations, to see whether levels of pay can be justified by variations in work experience or schooling, or by wage differences between regions and industries. The three-hundred-page study finds that, at best, measured characteristics “can account for 30 to 40 percent of the wage gap.” For example, we can count up the number of years workers have spent at school or the time they have been employed in a trade. Thus the report can compare black and white men who have had four years of college. If we find that, among those in this group, black men make $784 for every $1,000 going to white men, we must ask whether this is evidence of bias. The report suggests that this need not be the case: there may be “unmeasured differences in the knowledge and skills” gained by black and white graduates. Four years spent at MIT may well differ from an equal period at Alabama A & M. (On the other hand, black women who have completed college make $1,017 for each $1,000 earned by their white counterparts.) But bias usually begins earlier. Few blacks finish high school programs that prepare students for MIT.
The commission confined its study to black men with full-time jobs, on the whole a selective group. Back in 1954, more than 75 percent of all black men were working. By 1986, only 40 percent had full-time, year-round jobs. Overall, the income of all black men—in or outside the labor force—adds up to only 60 percent of that of white men, not much better than the ratio for workers a generation ago. Not the least reason is that many of the places in the job market once held by black men have been taken by women. According to the most recent census count, more black women than men were employed in 1986. If employers show a greater willingness to hire black women, one reason is that more of them finish high school; indeed, women now make up 56 percent of black college graduates.
Accordingly, in many fields more black women are employed than black men. Most notably, women account for two thirds of all the professional positions held by blacks; the comparable proportion of white women to white men is 48 percent. More has been involved here than affirmative action programs and civil rights statutes. Black women are more likely to take jobs because their husbands’ earnings are low, or their households do not have a male bread-winner. This is true even at higher occupational levels. Only 48 percent of black professional women are married, compared with 62 percent of their white colleagues.
Most of Marian Wright Edelman’s missing black fathers were also missing from the employment force. The short, and sad, explanation is that too many black youths fail to acquire the attitudes and skills employers say they want. Much of this failure, I think, has to do with being raised in segregated neighborhoods, where prowess in the streets counts for more than anything else. In this milieu, manhood is not won by diligence at school; many stop attending altogether. (For public schools to attract these young men Herculean efforts would be necessary that few schools are willing to undertake, even if they knew how to engage their attention.) Similarly, there is disdain for jobs that pay only “chump change,” as one young man told Nicholas Lemann. 5 Seeing themselves as nativeborn Americans, these youths regard such work as beneath them. This is why we are more likely to see Hispanics parking cars and Asians washing up in restaurants. On the whole, girls seem better able to survive inner-city slums. Those who avoid early motherhood—as most do—usually finish high school with the literacy and diction employers expect.
Family income, the most common measure of prosperity, presents yet another picture. As Table D (see page 30) shows, black households form a classical pyramid, with a majority receiving under $20,000.
The white figure is shaped more like a Greek cross, with families earning over $35,000 a year actually outnumbering those earning less than $20,000. To heighten the racial disparity, the number of poorer black families is actually increasing. Between 1970 and 1986, in constant dollars, the number of black households making under $10,000 rose by 11 percent. The reason is that a higher proportion of black families are now headed by women, whose low incomes depress the median. I estimate that as much as 40 percent of the racial income gap is attributable to the fact that black families fail to match the white balance of single parents and married couples.
In the same period, the proportion of black households making over $50,000 (again in constant dollars) almost doubled, rising from 4.5 percent in 1970 to 8.8 percent last year. Bart Landry discusses this group in The New Black Middle Class. He convincingly estimates that most come from working-class backgrounds: “striving families…that drew on every available economic and emotional resource to help their children,” and were supported and encouraged by relatives, ministers, and teachers. At the same time, he points out that to reach the middle class, black households usually need two earners. Only 1.5 percent of black men have incomes of $50,000 or more, while 7.5 percent of white men make that much or more. Moreover, the black middle class depends heavily on government employment. For example, almost 40 percent of black lawyers are on public payrolls, well over twice the proportion of whites.
Landry has written a revealing book which provides an important antidote to the optimistic-sounding findings of the Civil Rights Commission. He concludes:
Given the way the system works for blacks, increases in income-producing characteristics such as education and seniority have relatively less impact on their income than they do among whites, because blacks receive considerably lower rewards for the same characteristics.
He estimates that even if black men were to gain the same education and seniority as whites, their income would rise only by 8 percent, a fraction of the racial earnings gap. So “striving” is not enough. Organizations tend to have images of the qualities they want in their employees, and insofar as these models build on “white” attitudes and traits, it becomes harder for blacks to come across as qualified for openings and promotions. I am not referring here to such basic standards as literacy and reliability, but rather to the doubts of white employers about how well blacks will fit into the social setting of “white” offices and factories. (I have placed quotation marks around “white,” because Asians seem to have had little trouble in satisfying these doubts.) And in light of the ratios cited earlier, it would appear that black women are better able to pass such tests than black men. At issue here are institutional expressions of racism, a topic I will pursue in a subsequent article.
It is a central fact of racial life that most black Americans live in neighborhoods that are all black or mainly so, send their children to schools with large minority enrollments, and have few sustained contacts with the white world. The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America contains the best treatment of residential segregation I have seen in many years. Reynolds Farley and Walter Allen draw on census figures and related studies to show why people end up living where they do. Employing an “index of residential segregation,” they find that in Cleveland and Philadelphia, racial boundaries remain much as they were a decade or more ago, while only 8 percent of Chicago’s black families live in integrated neighborhoods. New York and Los Angeles have a somewhat better record, since they have more varied populations and neighborhoods. A quarter of New York’s black residents live in proximity to other races; in Los Angeles about 20 percent do.
Certainly one must first ask whether blacks segregate themselves voluntarily. This has been the choice of the Amish and the Hasidic Jews, but theirs are relatively small communities with strong religious ties. Farley and Allen say that Hispanics and Asians provide a better comparison. While they often prefer to live together, in fact over half of both these groups live in neighborhoods that are predominantly white. “Even the newest minority groups to arrive in our cities in large numbers are less segregated from whites than are blacks.” The authors conclude that black segregation differs markedly from that imposed on any other group. Indeed, most blacks would not choose the residential patterns they currently experience. A recent New York Times poll found that only 12 percent of the blacks who were queried said they would prefer a neighborhood that was all or mostly black.6 Eighty-six percent said they would like an equal mixture of black and white neighbors. Sad to say, that ratio has little chance of being realized.
White householders generally tell interviewers that they would not mind “if a black with an income and education similar to their own moved into their block.” Farley and Allen show how attitudes change when the talk turns to numbers. Since so many neighborhoods have gone through racial change, we have enough data to measure white reactions with some precision. On the whole, white families will stay—and new ones will continue to move in—so long as the black ratio remains below 8 percent. But if the black proportion reaches, say, 20 percent, at least a quarter of the whites will leave the neighborhood and no new whites will move in. Thus vacated houses will be rented or bought by blacks, and the area will be on its way to becoming all black.
Given the prospect of “white flight,” many supporters of integrated neighborhoods have found themselves defending “benign quotas.” Perhaps the best-known example has been Starrett City, a Brooklyn complex of forty-six buildings housing some 5,880 families. At the most recent count, 65 percent of the residents in this privately owned rental project were white, 21 percent were black, 8 percent were Hispanic, with the remainder mainly Asian. With this ratio, whites have been willing to stay, and new white families have moved in as vacancies arose. Until now, certainly, those blacks who are in Starrett City have had the integrated setting they would seem to want. Moreover, it would appear that a black representation of 21 percent has not been so high as to frighten whites away. In part, this may be so because New Yorkers are less wary of minority neighbors. But more important is the fact that Starrett City’s whites have been assured that black tenancies would not be allowed to exceed 21 percent. Indeed, the project kept separate racial waiting lists, so as to fill vacancies in line with the arranged ratio. After two months, white applicants usually heard they could be accommodated, while black candidates—whose list was much longer—typically had a twenty-month wait for a comparable apartment. By no means a colorblind system; nor was it first come, first served.
In 1983, the Justice Department filed suit against Starrett City, on the grounds that blacks had to wait longer. The project’s lawyers replied that its “race-conscious practices” were used “solely to achieve and maintain integration and were not motivated by racial animus.” In other words, the quotas were benign. Even if calibrated to white sensibilities, they were intended to preserve the degree of mixture all races could accept. William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general who initiated the case, held that it was not the job of government—let alone a private apartment complex—to “reorder society or neighborhoods to achieve some degree of proportionality.” Reynolds had always fought against quotas, but in the past it was against those that increased minority representation. Now he claimed to be siding with black applicants who felt they would benefit from a race-blind waiting list.
In May of 1987, a federal district judge ruled that Starrett City could not make people of one race wait longer than others. Reynolds obviously realized from the start that if tenants were admitted in the order in which they had applied, most of the new tenants would be black; and in time the project would become predominantly of one race. In fact, it appears that this is what he wanted to see happen. An additional motive, I suspect, was to force liberals to defend a policy that is biased against some blacks. It also puts blacks on the spot, since few are willing publicly to agree to a limit, even of 21 percent. Thus the case pitted blacks already in Starrett City against other blacks impatient to get in. Accordingly, the real losers were black Americans, most of whom want to live in integrated neighborhoods, but only a few of whom can. And even fewer will, if projects like Starrett City leave the list.7
Compared with other groups, blacks have far fewer choices where they may live. In more anonymous sections of cities, the extent of integration can be illusory. If an apartment building has only one or two black tenants, their very presence permits several hundred whites to say they have black neighbors. Indeed, in The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America, Farley and Allen show how residential segregation is as pronounced among black families with incomes over $50,000 as it is among those with lower earnings. Nor has the movement to the suburbs brought greater integration. Bart Landry cites studies in The New Black Middle Class to show how “racially discriminatory channeling” continues beyond the city line:
Most black migrants to the suburbs…have had to settle in expanding black enclaves or areas from which whites were fleeing. In some cases, these areas were merely extensions of central city ghettos or suburban developments built exclusively for blacks.
Landry’s survey of middle-class black families found that only 20 percent had white households living nearby. Their black neighbors were often working class, leading him to conclude that “the idea of a black middle class living in social isolation from other classes is largely a myth.” The nation as a whole has at most perhaps a dozen high-income black enclaves—the College Park neighborhood in suburban Atlanta is an example. Nor should they be construed as a first choice. As we have noted, most black Americans would prefer to live in integrated neighborhoods. Farley and Allen note that at least a third would be willing to be the first family to move into an all-white neighborhood, regardless of the risks. They do not want to be pioneers, or even necessarily to live among whites, but they know that the better schools and safer streets are apt to be where whites are.
Even so, the fact that better-off blacks move to new locations has had deep implications for the structure of black America. Until the 1950s, blacks of all classes had little choice but to live in circumscribed neighborhoods. As a result, most schools and streets were black but had people of all classes, with those who were doing better setting the tone. In that sense, they had a lot in common with Europe’s Jewish shtetls and ghettos. To be a “striver” was expected, even if you only ended up keeping your head above water. Since all suffered from discrimination, bias could not be used as an excuse. In response to restrictions, families found support in building systems of relatives and friends, with churches playing a central part in maintaining a sense of community. In fact, blacks adhered to much the same regimen as arriving immigrants, the difference being that they received far fewer rewards for equal or greater pains.8
In The Truly Disadvantaged, William Julius Wilson shows how the presence of working- and middle-class families has “enhanced the social organization of inner-city neighborhoods”:
The very presence of these families…provides mainstream role models that help keep alive the perception that education is meaningful, that steady employment is a viable alternative to welfare, and that family stability is the norm, not the exception.
Thus, a perceptive ghetto youngster in a neighborhood that includes a good number of working and professional families may observe increasing joblessness and idleness but he will also witness many individuals regularly going to and from work; he may sense an increase in school dropouts but he can also see a connection between education and meaningful employment; he may detect a growth in single-parent families, but he will also be aware of the presence of many married-couple families.
Beginning in the 1950s, blacks with higher incomes were able to move, if not to integrated areas, at least to neighborhoods they saw as more prosperous or as having better resources. As a result, Wilson points out, older neighborhoods lost their best models, especially resident fathers who brought home steady earnings. (This also happened with housing projects, which began barring tenants who had better incomes, foolishly cutting off the residents from association with the blacks who were more successful in life and sometimes had superior skills.) The consequence has been that black neighborhoods that were once mixed are now overwhelmingly poor. In some Chicago schools, teachers find that only three or four children in their classes are living with both parents. Even the more educated blacks who work in the poorer neighborhoods—teachers, social workers, police—commute from elsewhere. Wilson notes that this mode of segregation, combining poverty and race, is relatively new. To reside amid so many people leading desultory lives makes it all the harder to break away. The question inevitably arises whether public policy has helped to create this depressed and dependent class.
Since 1955, the number of households on the Aid to Families with Dependent Children rolls has risen by almost sixfold. During the Eisenhower administration, governments at all levels began to make it easier to receive welfare funds. This shift expressed a rise in liberal sentiment, articulated by the growing social service professions. Before public assistance was made available, women on their own had no choice but to find jobs, typically as domestic servants. Welfare became available to spare mothers this toil. After all, shouldn’t single mothers also have the option of staying home with their children?
In fact, few if any women have children simply in order to get a welfare check. The desire to become pregnant almost always comes first. Still, as more teen-agers come to feel that their lives would be brightened by having a baby, the availability of public assistance makes it possible to act out that dream. Had such stipends not been at hand, it appears likely that at least some of these youngsters would not have allowed themselves to get pregnant, or would have had their babies adopted or aborted, or would have married the father. On the other hand, would we want to be adamant about refusing aid to those who end up with infants anyway? This decision will confront public agencies if “workfare” programs are enforced. Even if mothers are presented with inducements to take part in new welfare programs requiring work—programs including day care, job training, medical benefits—there remains the question of what will happen to mothers who cannot hold a job or simply refuse to find one.
One message that pervades all the books reviewed here is that being black and poor is a very different condition from being white and poor. We know that white youths across the country—from inner Boston to rural Arkansas—commit crimes, drop out of school, and become parents in their teens. In most cases, however, those who do so are not typical of their areas or neighborhoods, which tend to be solidly working-class.9 Moreover, few white districts in cities are predominantly poor in the way so many black sections are. Appalachian enclaves in Chicago and Cincinati may be rough places; still, most homes have working fathers. Nor are they creations of racial segregation.
Equally important, white poverty is not as likely to diminish family stability. The figures for New York are fairly typical in this regard. Table F shows that even the poorest counties in the state, which are mainly rural and virtually all white, have comparatively few single-parent households.
In contrast, families headed by women dominate the black populations not only in New York and Buffalo, but in places where the black communities are relatively small. The chief reason is that even in towns like Geneva and Middletown, black families end up in segregated sections. It is this social and cultural isolation—a climate whites never really know—which more than any other single force encourages the early siring and bearing of children without thought for the future.
What is the responsibility of white Americans for the conditions I have been discussing here? In a second article I will consider several books that address this question.
This is the first of two articles.
December 3, 1987
The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (US Government Printing Office, 1965). ↩
The major work here is, of course, Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (Random House, 1977). ↩
A recent report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute is especially revealing. Starting in 1966, the study followed 330 black inner-city teen-agers who had children out of wedlock. By 1984, when they were in their early thirties, 71 percent had completed high school and 76 percent had gotten married, although most of those marriages did not last. While 70 percent of the women had at one time been on welfare, by 1984 only 29 percent were still receiving public funds (Frank Furstenberg, et al., “Adolescent Mothers and Their Children in Later Life,” Family Planning Perspectives, July–August 1987, pp. 141–151). At the same time, the authors note, “we must recognize that the life courses of adolescent mothers today may differ from those of the women in this study.” ↩
Elizabeth Herzog, “Is There a ‘Breakdown’ of the Negro Family?” Social Work (January 1966), pp. 8–9. ↩
Nicholas Lemann, “The Origins of the Underclass,” The Atlantic (July, August 1986), and also Christopher Jencks, “Genes and Crime,” The New York Review (February 12, 1987). ↩
The New York Times (April 1, 1987). ↩
Emboldened by his Starrett City victory, Reynolds has filed suit against Atrium Village in Chicago, which has maintained its 50 percent white tenancy by means of separate waiting lists. ↩
See, for example, Mary White Ovington, Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York (Greenwood, reprint of 1911 edition). ↩
For a perceptive study of white youths with depressed aspirations, see Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It (Westview Press, 1987). ↩