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Family Ties

Any serious discussion of race must address out-of-wedlock births.

12:00 AM, Mar 27, 2008 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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SAY THIS FOR Barack Obama's big speech: It is still being analyzed this week, and it will be analyzed more in the weeks and months ahead. Senator Obama went beyond the controversy over his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and delivered a sweeping address on the recent history of U.S. race relations. But he gave short shrift to an issue that is inseparable from racial inequality: the issue of out-of-wedlock births.

"So many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow," Obama said. He did acknowledge that welfare policies "may" have hurt black families. But he affirmed with certainty that "a lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families."

That's true. But it's also true that African-American families were much more intact in the decades before the Civil Rights Act than they were in the decades after it. In 1963, according to the famous Department of Labor report issued by Daniel Patrick Moynihan two years later, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks was 23.6 percent while the rate among whites was only 3.07 percent. By 2005, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among non-Hispanic whites had jumped to 25.3 percent and the rate among non-Hispanic blacks stood at nearly 70 percent.

In other words, the black out-of-wedlock birth rate was lower in 1963--on the eve of the Civil Rights Act, when Jim Crow policies were still an ugly reality in the American South and white racism was far more widespread than it is today--than the non-Hispanic white rate was in 2005. While Moynihan was right to raise the alarm, the numbers show that African-American families proved remarkably durable through decades of repression and racism following Reconstruction. The most severe "erosion of black families" in the 20th century occurred in the years after the civil rights movement reached its apotheosis, when black economic opportunities were expanding rapidly. What explains that?

Broadly speaking, American society underwent a cultural revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since then, out-of-wedlock birth rates among both blacks and whites have shot upward. But blacks were starting from a much higher base, and the spike among blacks was more precipitous than the spike among whites. As Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector has noted, the black out-of-wedlock birth rate ballooned from less than 25 percent in the early 1960s to 49 percent in 1975 and to 70 percent in 1995. The white rate increased from less than 5 percent in the early 1960s to 25 percent in 2005.

The connection between family breakdown and child poverty is well established. In a 1991 American Sociological Review article, David J. Eggebeen and Daniel T. Lichter estimated that if black family composition had remained constant from 1960 to 1988, the black child poverty rate in 1988 would have been 28.4 percent instead of 45.6 percent. If black family composition had remained constant from 1980 to 1988, Eggebeen and Lichter said, the black child poverty rate in 1988 would have been 40 percent instead of 45.6 percent.

"This implies that changing black family structure in the 1980s accounted for roughly 65 percent of the increase in official poverty among black children," they noted. "Black family shifts in the 1980s also accounted for 51 percent of the increase in deep poverty, and about 90 percent of the growth in relative child poverty." Family breakdown also had an intensifying effect on the child poverty rates of whites, but it "had a much greater effect on the child poverty rates of blacks."

In 1960, according to the Eggebeen-Lichter analysis, racial disparities in child poverty "had very little to do with racial differences in family structure." Yet by 1988, this was no longer true. "Racial differences in child poverty cannot be explained by racial differences in family structure alone," they wrote. "At the same time, the changing family structure among black and white children has clearly exacerbated long-standing racial differences in child poverty. Indeed, in the absence of widening racial differences in family structure, the 1960-1988 period would have brought substantial convergence in racial differences in official, deep, and relative child poverty."