Legitimacy, At Last2

23/07/2010 17:29



Patterson’s theme is that the solution to the black family problem has remained an eternal headscratcher, with ideological posturing preventing effective solutions. This is a symptom of his faultlessly non-partisan approach, allowing all sides their say. (I cannot help wondering, though, why, while nominally extending this courtesy to my work, he repeatedly limns me as a kind of unreflective trash-talking grandpa, attributing to me, even in quotation marks, things I have never written, such as that young black men only care about “basketball, rap music and sex.” Not only would I never write such a thing, but I’m not sure I’ve even ever written the word basketball until right now). Although well-taken, his grim theme distracts him from a factor that deserves more attention than he lends it, a factor that has played a crucial part in the legacy of Moynihan’s report.         

That momentous factor is this: After the 1960s, the percentage of black children with one parent exploded from a quarter to—by the 1990s—nearly three-fourths, vastly out of step with the availability of work, the prevalence of racism, or equivalent single-parentage figures for any other race. Multigenerational welfare dependency and all-but-fatherless neighborhoods became a norm in poor black communities. Surely the burden of proof is upon those who would argue that this was unconnected with the relaxation of eligibility rules for AFDC benefits in the 1960s.

There is no evidence that couples deliberately opted—for economic reasons—not to marry, as Charles Murray famously argued in Losing Ground. Yet a program that after 1966 gave women stipends for any number of children regardless of the availability of their father(s), and never required them to work again, certainly affected their choices. Indeed, it created a new norm, in a gradual social and cultural transformation larger than any single person. A classic riposte is that welfare could not have been the culprit since it became slightly less generous over the 1970s—but this is a debate-team feint, implying that people were sitting at their kitchen tables tabulating how many tens of dollars more they would have received in 1969 versus 1973.