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Investing in Families
Published on Tuesday, August 21, 2001 in the Cape Cod Times
Investing in Families
by Sean Gonsalves
In 1965, a controversy was raging over a report on the "Negro" family. It was authored by the "liberal" senator from Hell's Kitchen, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

"The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of the family structure. The evidence - not final, but powerfully persuasive - is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling... . So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself," the distinguished gentleman from New York wrote in the famed Moynihan Report.

Since then, Moynihan's thesis, which he loosely based on the work of a black sociologist named E. Franklin Frazier, has been regurgitated over and over again to justify poverty, in general, and the black underclass, in particular.

Listen, nobody in their right mind argues that stable families are not better for children or that criminals and other underachievers do not often come from broken families. Yes, single-parent families have a more difficult time making it than stable two-parent families, etc., etc.

But to end one's analysis and concern there is to miss a lot. William Ryan, whose book "Blaming the Victim" went a long way in debunking middle-class ideologies of the 1960s and 70s, is still relevant.

"It is not that Negro inequality cannot be eliminated until the Negro family is strengthened, but rather that the achievement of equality will strengthen the family, the community and the nation, black and white together," Ryan wrote.

Still, it is common for well-meaning whites, who usually have very little personal contact, if any, with blacks to cite the following statistic as the sole cause of black poverty: 70 percent of all African-American births are out of wedlock.

That's certainly not a good thing but it doesn't go very far in capturing the complex reality of family life in black America. It doesn't take into account the strong extended family network of most black families.

In my family, there is an unwritten rule that any cousin who is part of the generation older than yours is considered an aunt or an uncle. Ask any of my kinfolk what's the most important thing in life to them and they'll say God and family.

Now, living and working in America as I do, and with as many close white friends as I have, I am saturated in "white" culture, just as most blacks are. And my experience affirms what sociologists have pointed out for years: white Americans tend not to be as closely connected to their extended family as are black Americans.

You know, the whole "it takes a village to raise a child" thing? Hearing people bristle when Hillary Clinton repeats that proverb coined by my ancestors, I can't tell if that's white family values talking or folks just hatin' on the Clintons. The point is most black children born out of wedlock are not raised by single-mothers alone.

When Moynihan's report came out, 24 percent of black infants were born out of wedlock. That number soared to 64 percent in 1990. Social scientists have sought to explain this, realizing it would be absurd to argue, as a talk-radio host might, that blacks are popping out kids like rabbits, given the fact that black fertility rates have remained stable over the decades.

One argument that conservatives love is the saw offered by Charles Murray - the guy who co-authored that verbose tome of nonsense called "The Bell Curve." Murray attributes the increase to overly generous federal welfare benefits.

Murray's argument is completely undermined by what David Ellwood and Lawrence Summers have demonstrated; namely that welfare benefits could not have played a major role in the rise of out-of-wedlock births because benefits rose sharply in the 1960s and then fell in the 1970s and 80s, when out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed; not to mention the fact that only 10 to 12 percent of "welfare" families have another child while "on the dole."

And even though black out-of-wedlock births have increased since 1990, birth rates for black teenagers since 1991 have declined by 26 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Vital Statistics Report. In fact, birth rates fell most steeply for black teenagers compared to every other race group in the nation.

Clearly, changing sexual attitudes are a factor but that is a cultural trend that goes far beyond black "welfare queens."

Footnote: Stats from the 1920s, 30s and 40s indicate that about 25 percent of all American children lived part of their childhood with only one parent in the home because of the death of a spouse.

But you know what Twain said about statistics and lies. This debate can be broken into two camps: those who morally browbeat poor mothers and fathers and those who realize that even as two parents per child is the ideal, adequate economic resources and opportunities help shore up crumbling families and sustain broken ones.

And that's something worth investing in.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columinist. He can be reached via email:

Copyright © 2001 Cape Cod Times


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