Race, Income, Gender, and Family Structure

Oldsters and social scientists are probably aware of the furor that greeted Daniel Patrick Monynihan’s 1965 report to President Lyndon B. Johnson, entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” As the Urban Institute’s Isbel Sawhill reports in the January/February issue of the Washington Monthly (note: the title of her piece–“The New White Negro”–is an allusion to Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay on the origins of Hipster culture, and was chosen by a WaMo editor, not Dr. Sawhill), the very same “family breakdown” patterns that characterized African-Americans in 1965 now characterize white Americans as well, particularly those with lower educational achievements. Indeed, she concludes, a welter of factors including education, income and gender now affect marriages, divorces, and especially the decision of women to bear children out of wedlock, with race become more a complicating factor than the center of the story.

The big recent change, says Sawhill, is among “white working class” Americans:

Just as joblessness among young black men contributed to the breakdown of the black family that Moynihan observed in the ’60s, more recent changes in technology and global competition have hollowed out the job market for less educated whites. Unskilled white men have even less attachment to the labor force today than unskilled black men did fifty years ago, leading to a decline in their marriage rates in a similar way.

Moreover, the gradual emancipation of women, combined with the economic and educational challenges of men, have made single parenthood a much more attractive option for women, particularly when men resist a role in domestic life commensurate with their declining contributions to the household budget.

Family structure, of course, greatly reinforces disparities in opportunities for children, across racial lines:

Along with many others, I remain concerned about the effects on society of this wholesale retreat from stable two-parent families. The consequences for children, especially, are not good. Their educational achievements, and later chances of becoming involved in crime or a teen pregnancy are, on average, all adversely affected by growing up in a single-parent family. But I am also struck by the lessons that emerge from looking at how trends in family formation have differed by class as well as by race. If we were once two countries, one black and one white, we are now increasingly becoming two countries, one advantaged and one disadvantaged.

It’s the problem that no degree of conservative “backlash” can wish away.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.