William Julius Wilson, ever the patient professor, will lead you through his fascinating little charts, trying to get you to recall what all of us used to know but what has somehow slipped our minds.
The subject is the dismaying increase in single-parent households among blacks, and he'd like you to understand how it came to be. He'll grant the possibility that both the "new morality" and the unanticipated influence of welfare may be a part of the explanation, but those are by no means the whole explanation.
Look at his charts. In 1954, the ratio of "marriageable" (meaning "employed") 18-and 19-year-old men to women of the same age was roughly the same among blacks and whites, with black men slightly more likely to be working. The trend continued through 1960 (50 "marriageable" black men for every 100 black women of the same age; 48 "marriageable" white men for every 100 white women of the same age), and then the two curves started to separate. By the late 1970s, the ratio was 63 marriageable white men per 100 women; 40 per 100 for blacks.
The same trend occurred for the 20- to-24 age group, with the trend lines separating markedly in the late 1960s.
Wilson's conclusion: The shrinking of the pool of marriageable black men seems a likely explanation for at least some of the increase in out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households among blacks.
"The interesting thing," says the University of Chicago sociologist, "is that we used to know this. Back in the 1960s, Pat Moynihan, Kenneth Clark and Bayard Rustin, among others, were making the connection between black male joblessness and the breakdown of black families. Now we seem to have lost sight of that relationship, placing much more emphasis on the role of welfare." Charles Murray ("Losing Ground") has succeeded in convincing a lot of us that welfare, serving as a father-substitute, is a major reason for the increase in single-parent households among blacks.
Wilson, whose book, "The Declining Significance of Race," was frequently interpreted -- incorrectly -- as a statement that race was no longer an important factor in the income and employment disparities between blacks and whites, doesn't want to be misunderstood this time.
"We (Wilson and his graduate student, Kathryn M. Neckerman, co-authors of a monograph on "Poverty and Family Structure") are not making a single-minded argument. But this male marriageable-pool index has to be a part of the explanation; it may be the major explanation. Certainly there's no reason why the welfare connection should receive more attention than the joblessness connection, which has been pushed to the back burner.
"As a matter of fact, the marriageable-pool index has an advantage over other measures because, if it is true that most of the black men who are undercounted in the census are jobless, then that proportion is automatically included in the index, which also covers the higher incarceration and mortality rates for black males."
The 49-year-old professor makes another point that tends to get lost. The fertility rate for black women -- including out-of-wedlock births -- actually has declined in the last decade or so. "The problem," he says, "is that these women just aren't getting married." And one result is a major increase in black poverty, female-headed households being the single largest category of poor families.
Nearly everyone acknowledges that that is a particularly devastating problem for blacks. But we have been looking for moral, cultural and policy explanations of single parenting and delayed marriage among young blacks (who, at an earlier time, would have put heavy emphasis on "legitimizing" their out-of- wedlock children).
For Wilson, a major part of the explanation is obvious: the young women don't get married because the marriageable men aren't there.