Over 47 percent of all black children live in families with incomes below the poverty line, making them three times as likely as white children to be poor. And three-quarters of those impoverished black kids, aged 6 and under, live in households headed by single women. Such households are five times more common now than in 1950, for both blacks and whites, but that growth has magnified a slight differential: one in seven white families with children is headed by a single woman, versus almost half for blacks. This shift in family structure is not just an interesting fact about ways of life. It reveals growing economic vulnerability. And, especially for the children, it is a disaster.

These social changes seem to have played an important part in hollowing the improved economic opportunities of the past quarter-century. Median black family income in recessionary 1981 was 56 percent of whites'--about where it was in 1960. Despite tremendous gains in education and literacy, black unemployment remains twice that of whites. Meanwhile, although the rate at which black teen-agers bear children has fallen, it has fallen far less than for whites. Teen- age pregnancies are endemic in many communities.

So, the cycle of poverty seems as well-fueled as ever. Is this a poverty promoted by social forces, or social forces promoted by poverty? The classic question seems to defy solution, and invites loose talk about the effect of government programs, based more on ideological biases than on information. Welfare programs, particularly AFDC, are often cited as the evil force driving families apart. But the majority of welfare recipients over the past several years have been in states that provide at least limited benefits to two-parent as well as one-parent families, precisely so that needy households ordinarily do not have to break up in order to get assistance. On the other hand, it may be that the mere availability of AFDC for single mothers has made the option of bearing children out of wedlock more feasible, even though poor job opportunities and low welfare benefits make poverty the usual result.

But a few things are pretty clear. First, jobs make a difference, because young women who have decent employment prospects are less likely to have economically disastrous pregnancies, and young men who are surviving in the labor market are less likely to create and then abandon family responsibilities. Second, a climate of tolerance and even peer recognition for economically irresponsible childbirths destroys the opportunities of current and future generations. Black academics and civil rights leaders are speaking out in increasingly forceful tones on these two points, and not solely with an eye toward government programs.

The NAACP has just announced a major effort to study the connection between black poverty and family structure, and has promised thoughtful proposals. This is an encouraging and overdue step in which other organizations should join. The longer we wait, the more generations we lose.