Family breakdown goes biracial

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, well-meaning readers who say we won't be able to do anything — anything — about urban violence until we reverse the decline of marriage in African-American households.

I'm as troubled as any 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 Mac Donald, a writer-analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute, helped set this tone in a widely circulated 2010 City Magazine essay on black-on-black violence in Roseland and Altgeld Gardens, the Chicago areas where Obama famously worked for four years as a community organizer.

Her conclusion: Obama and "decades of failed social policy" in crime-plagued, low-income areas 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 decline of marriage in African-American households. She quotes his call for cultural change in his widely covered Father's Day speech in Chicago during his 2008 presidential campaign.

"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."

That's the speech, you may recall, that upset the Rev. Jesse Jackson as too condescending, although most black voters didn't seem to mind.

Mac Donald 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 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 on 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, an expert on domestic poverty and federal fiscal policy at the Brookings Institution, in the latest Washington Monthly put it: "Family Breakdown Is Now Biracial."

She writes that Daniel Patrick Moynihan's controversial 1965 report, titled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," "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," Sawhill writes. "Indeed, for younger women without a college degree, unwed childbearing is the new normal."

Sawhill does not cheer this development, which she and other experts following in Moynihan's path have found to be a pattern throughout the developed world.

If the rise in out-of-wedlock 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 a 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.

Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.

cpage@tribune.com

Twitter @cptime

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