I first heard the numbers from sociologist Andrew Billingsley:

In 1890, 80 percent of black American households were headed by husbands and wives. That's just 25 years after the end of the Civil War.

In 1900, the percentage was mostly unchanged, and so it remained -- between the high 70s and the low 80s -- for 1910, 1920, 1930, for every decennial census report until 1970, when it was down to 64.

For the 2000 Census, the percentage of black families headed by married couples was 38. The only good news is that it was also 38 percent in 1990, suggesting that the trend may have stopped getting worse.

Now consider this: Fatherless families are America's single largest source of poverty. The Annie E. Casey Foundation's "Kids Count" once reported that Americans who failed to complete high school, to get married and to reach age 20 before having their first child were nearly 10 times as likely to live in poverty as those who did these three things.

Poverty, it goes without saying, is associated with poorer academic outcomes, which, in turn, are associated with poorer job prospects. That means, among other things, reduced ability to choose neighborhoods to bring children up in safety. Non-marriage has consequences.

Two things need to be said: The phenomenon obviously does not apply to all black families, nor is it restricted to black families. An impressive number of African Americans are succeeding beyond what earlier generations could even imagine (though I suspect that a disproportionate percentage of those outstanding successes are from two-parent families).

There's nothing inherently racial about the trend, of course. The 2000 Census showed that only 69 percent of all American children were born into two-parent households -- 65 percent for Hispanics and 77 percent for whites.

Further, fatherlessness does not affect all people equally. Whenever I address the topic, I am certain to hear from some people who want me to know that they were raised by a single mother and managed to turn out quite well, thank you. That doesn't surprise me, of course. There are children who are, for unexplained reasons, unusually resilient and self-motivated, and there are single mothers whose skill and discipline are so heroic that their children are virtually driven to succeed.

But acknowledging that "Peg Leg" Bates was a helluva tap dancer shouldn't obscure the fact that dancers are generally better off with the full complement of nether limbs.

So am I urging all single mothers to grab the nearest adult male and haul him off to the altar?

Of course not. As Mary Frances Berry, then chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, once told me: "If all the single mothers in poor communities married single men in those same communities, and the men all moved in, the only effect would be to increase by one the number of disabled people in each household."

She was right, of course. But while marriage may not be a cure for poverty, it does turn out to be a fairly reliable preventative. Isn't it worthwhile to spend more time and resources helping young people to understand the economic implications of single parenthood before they become single parents? Wouldn't it make sense to rethink our relatively recent easy acceptance of out-of-wedlock parenting?

And might it not be a good idea to work at restoring the influence of the community institutions, religious and civic, that used to help strengthen families? The trends Billingsley talked about were a long time developing, and they won't be reversed in a day or two.

As he told me, "You can't have strong families unless you have strong communities, and you can't have strong communities unless you have strong institutions."

Phillip Jackson, executive director of Chicago's Black Star Project and promoter of the Million Father March, cites the oft-repeated proverb that it "takes a village to raise a child."

In too many parts of the black community, he said, "the proverb has little relevance. There is no village to raise the children . . . no collective community effort to ensure that most black children will grow up capable of succeeding in the 21st century.

"Unfortunately, African proverbs don't raise children. People do."