The Commercial Appeal

Family breakdown not race issue


I know from past experience that I’m going to upset some folks by saying this, so brace yourselves: Marriage is very important and beneficial to the raising of children, but there’s little evidence that it fights crime.

I bring this up in response to the sincere, wellmeanin­g readers who say that we won’t be able to do anything — anything — about urban violence until we reverse the decline of marriage in AfricanAme­rican households.

I’m as troubled as any other concerned black parent about the rise in out- of-wedlock births in black America since the 1950s. But I am even more troubled when I hear people who should know better try to lay every social problem, including the nation’s current gun violence debate, at the feet of single-parenting — as if nothing else mattered.

Heather MacDonald of the conservati­ve Manhattan Institute helped set this tone in a 2010 essay in City magazine on blackon-black violence in the Chicago neighborho­od where President Barack Obama famously worked for four years as a community organizer.

Her conclusion: Obama and “decades of failed social policy” in crimeplagu­ed low- income neighborho­ods on the city’s far South Side “ignored the primary cause of their escalating dysfunctio­n: the disappeara­nce of the black two-parent family.”

For those who read down far enough, she does mention that Obama is aware of the problem. She quotes his call for cultural change in a widely covered 2008 speech in Chicago.

“If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that ... too many fathers (are) missing from too many lives and too many homes,” he said then. “We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of school and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.”

MacDonald wants more than that. She dismissed Obama’s “bromides about school spending, preschool programs, visiting nurses, global warming, sexism, racial division, and income inequality.” Such spending will be wasted, she said, until poor black Chicagoans curb unwed pregnancie­s and stop the “culture of illegitima­cy.”

I believe quite the opposite, that we can’t expect to

We can’t expect to see much of a turnaround in out-of-wedlock births as long as we have rising educationa­l and income inequality — and not just in black America.”

see much of a turnaround in out- of-wedlock births as long as we have rising educationa­l and income inequality — and not just in black America.

A variety of sociologis­ts and economists from the ideologica­l left, right and nonpartisa­n middle have found downward mobility to be a shared experience across racial lines for many working-class and middle-class Americans, especially since the Great Recession.

As a headline on an article by Isabel Sawhill, a family life expert at the Brookings Institutio­n, in the latest Washington Monthly put it: “Family Breakdown Is Now Biracial.”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controvers­ial 1965 report, titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” she writes, “looks remarkably similar to a profile of the average white family today,” with the sharpest declines in marriage rates occurring among the least-educated of both races.

Marriage, in a sense, has become a new symbol of status, especially for the college educated. “The group for whom marriage has largely disappeare­d now includes not just unskilled blacks but unskilled whites as well,” she writes. Indeed, for younger women without a college degree, unwed childbeari­ng is the new normal.”

Sawhill and other experts have found this change to be a pattern throughout the developed world.

If the rise in out- ofwedlock births was tied that closely to crime and violence, I think we would see a more consistent pattern connecting them. Instead, we see crime going sharply up and down in various cities and across the country, while the rise in unwed child rearing steadily climbs.

A developmen­t this huge calls for more than simple one- size-fits-all analysis. I’m not saying that government programs provide all the answers, but we’re only beginning to ask the right questions. Contact Clarence Page of Tribune Media Services at cpage@

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