As we celebrate the anniversary of Martin Luther King's birth, we should ask why so many of the problems against which he struggled — segregation, poverty, persistent racial gaps in education and income — remain so much a part of American life.
Few remember that Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned of this possibility. His report “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” released 50 years ago, lamented the rising tide of single parenthood in the black community.
In its introduction, Moynihan warned that black families would not see improved fortunes for generations “unless a new and special effort is made.”
Unfortunately, the federal government, far from addressing the marriage problem, exacerbated it. The percentage of African-American children living in single-parent families climbed from less than 30% in 1965 to 50% in 2013. The percentage of white and Hispanic children in single-parent households has also risen sharply.
Growth in single parenthood has many causes including female entry into the labor force, changing social norms and male unemployment. But a close look at when the problem intensified — and when it attenuated — suggests that the main culprit may well be the government.
The steepest upward jump in single parenthood took place in the late 1960s and early 70s. And since the mid-1990s, the percentage of children living in single-parent families has stabilized — especially within the African-American community, where the percentage has in fact declined somewhat from its 1990 high.
Why? Prior to 1965, the welfare state for families with children was largely limited to a meager, restrictive program distributed by state and local governments.
That changed with the arrival of the Great Society. A host of novel programs, and revisions in older ones, provided a range of new resources and services.
Courts ordered a liberalization of state regulations governing aid to dependent children. A new Medicaid program covered most medical costs. Basic sustenance for the disabled was institutionalized through Supplemental Security Insurance and Social Security reforms.
A generous, broadly defined food stamp program replaced a more restrictive distribution of commodities.
Designs of some programs actively discouraged marriage. Welfare assistance went to mothers — so long as no male was in the household. Once a family income crossed a specific threshold, access to most resources disappeared.
These incentives encouraged childbirth even when the prospects of marriage were minimal. In many urban neighborhoods, pregnancies were seen by future mothers as opportunities to begin life anew.