An Enduring Crisis for the Black Family
In the nearly half-century in which we have gone from George Wallace to Barack Obama, America has another, less hopeful story to tell about racial progress, one that may be even harder to reverse.
In 1965, a young assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan stumbled upon data that showed a rise in the number of black single mothers. As Moynihan wrote in a now-famous report for the Johnson administration, especially troubling was that the growth in illegitimacy, as it was universally called then, coincided with a decline in black male unemployment. Strangely, black men were joining the labor force more, but they were marrying -- and fathering -- less.
There were other puzzling facts. In 1950, at the height of the Jim Crow era and despite the shattering legacy of slavery, the great majority of black children -- an estimated 85 percent -- were born to their two married parents. Just 15 years later, there seemed to be no obvious reason that that would change. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, legal barriers to equality were falling. The black middle class had grown substantially, and the first five years of the 1960s had produced 7 million new jobs. Yet 24 percent of black mothers were then bypassing marriage. Moynihan wrote later that he, like everyone else in the policy business, had assumed that "economic conditions determine social conditions." Now it seemed, "what everyone knew was evidently not so."
President Lyndon Johnson was deeply shaken by Moynihan's findings. Neither man was driven by sentimentality or religious conviction, but both believed that fatherlessness undermined the "basic socializing unit." Intent on sounding a public alarm, Johnson declared during a commencement address at Howard University: "When the family collapses, it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale, the community itself is crippled."
Unfortunately, those warnings were as prescient as they were reviled. Civil rights leaders, worried about reviving racist myths about black promiscuity, objected to what they viewed as blaming the victim. Feminists were inclined to look on the "strong black women" raising their children without men as a symbol of female autonomy. By the fall of 1965, when a White House conference on the black family was scheduled, the Moynihan report and the subject had disappeared.
But the silent treatment was the wrong medicine. Since 1965, through economic recessions and booms, the black family has unraveled in ways that have little parallel in human cultures. By 1980, black fatherlessness had doubled; 56 percent of black births were to single mothers. In inner-city neighborhoods, the number was closer to 66 percent. By the 1990s, even as the overall fertility of American women, including African Americans, was falling, the majority of black women who did bear children were unmarried. Today, 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. In some neighborhoods, two-parent families have vanished. In parts of Newark and Philadelphia, for example, it is common to find children who are not only growing up without their fathers but don't know anyone who is living with his or her biological father.
And what has this meant for racial progress? Fifty years after Jim Crow, black U.S. households have the lowest median income of any racial or ethnic group. Close to a third of black children are poor, and their chances of moving out of poverty are considerably lower than those of their white peers. The fractured black family is not the sole explanation for these gaps, but it is central. While half of all black children born to single mothers are poor, that is the case for only 12 percent of those born to married parents. At least three simulation studies "marrying off" single mothers to either the fathers of their children or to potential husbands of similar demographic characteristics concluded that child poverty would be dramatically lower had marriage rates remained what they were in 1970.
Black married couples make a median household income of $62,000, which is more than 80 percent of what white households earn and represents a gain of 13 percentage points since the 1960s. Yet overall, black household median income is only 62 percent that of white households, a mere six-point increase over the same period.
Merely walking down the aisle can't explain these differences. Rather, the institution of marriage appears to promote ideals of stability, order and fidelity that benefit children and adults alike. Those who pin their hopes for black progress on education tend to forget this. Numerous studies, when controlled for income and race, show that, on average, children growing up with single mothers are less likely to graduate from high school and go to college. And Moynihan's discovery of a negligible relationship between "economic conditions and social conditions" suggests that even increases in black male employment are not a certain cure.
Through the power of his own example, Obama presents a chance to revive what Lyndon Johnson called "the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights." Obama's memoir, "Dreams From My Father," conveys the economic, emotional and existential toll of growing up fatherless, and he has spoken movingly of his determination to ensure for his own children a different life. Yet tackling this issue won't be easy. When Obama gave a Father's Day speech lamenting "fathers . . . missing from too many lives and too many homes," Jesse Jackson was so incensed that he said he wanted to castrate Obama. Still, painful as the subject is, the alternative is far worse: racial inequality as far as the eye can see.
Kay Hymowitz, a contributing editor of City Journal, is author of "Marriage and Caste in America."