Economic Improvement Remains Stagnant For Poor Blacks

In 1965, sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who would later become a U.S. senator from New York, authored a controversial report. It concluded the decline of the black nuclear family was a major component to black poverty. Nearly 50 years later, the Urban Institute has released a follow-up to Moynihan's study that looks at the current barriers poor black families continue to face, and compares those findings to the country's other ethnic groups.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Early today, the Urban Institute released a new report that revisits a famous study conducted almost 50 years ago by the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The original study, written while Moynihan was an assistant secretary at the Department of Labor, chronicled a series of ills that contributed to poverty in black America. Five decades later, the new study finds there's been only moderate improvement. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's CodeSwitch takes a look at why.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The Moynihan report was published in 1965, and tried to explain the reasons for intractable poverty among America's black poor. Moynihan often reeled off the dire statistics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED FOOTAGE)

REPRESENTATIVE DANIEL MOYNIHAN: About a quarter of Negro families are headed by women. The divorce rate is - two and a half times what it is. The number of fatherless children keeps growing. And all these things getting worse, not better, over recent years.

BATES: Five decades later, the problem remains large enough for a concerned father to address the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We got single moms out here; they're heroic what they're doing. And we are so proud of them...

BATES: Yep, that's President Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: But at the same time, I wish I'd had a father who was around and involved.

BATES: Although some significant progress has been made for middle-class blacks, economic improvement remains stagnant for the black poor, says the Urban Institute's Gregory Acs.

GREGORY ACS: You see much higher poverty rates for blacks than whites, and you see much higher unemployment rates for blacks than whites, and you see a far greater share of kids being raised in single-parent families in black families than in white families. And these are some of the disparities that Moynihan saw 50 years ago, and we still see them today.

BATES: Several problems create a stubborn tangle that enables poverty to thrive today: unaddressed trauma from wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, persistent unemployment, public school systems that offer no vocational training for students who can't or don't want to go to college, and a two-tiered justice system that is much harsher on black men all contribute to the misery.

KENNETH BRASWELL: I mean, I think that the issues that black families are going through today, particularly black men, are so much more complex than they were back then.

BATES: That's Kenneth Braswell, executive director of Fathers, Incorporated, a nonprofit that promotes responsible fatherhood and mentoring. It partnered with the Urban Institute on today's study. Braswell, son of an unwed mother himself, was a toddler when the original Moynihan report came out. But he remembers the oppressive atmosphere of welfare monitoring.

BRASWELL: Whenever one of us, as kids, saw that car pull up outside of that building, we were told to immediately run into the building and let everybody know that the social worker was there.

BATES: He says the 1974 movie "Claudine" captured the era faithfully.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLAUDINE")

ELISA LOTI: (as Miss Kabak) So, if you've been seeing this man...

DIAHANN CARROLL: (as Claudine) Well, what is this? Am I not supposed to see a man? What am I, a damn nun?

LOTI: (as Miss Kabak) No, but if you've been sleeping with a man and he's been giving you things, I'm sorry, but I have to know.

BATES: Ken Braswell says 50 years later, some of welfare's most intrusive policies have changed, but life hasn't gotten much easier for the black poor. The current study includes Hispanics because of their demographic prominence. Their situation is a bit different, says the Urban Institute's Gregory Acs.

ACS: On average, their outcomes, whether it's unemployment, poverty, children living in single-parent families, they tend to fall between blacks and whites.

BATES: Kenneth Braswell says he'd like to look at these numbers more closely in the future to see what role cultural norms play in various ethnicities' poverty rates. In the meanwhile, Gregory Acs says, even Americans who don't live in poverty have a vested interest in reducing it for ones who do.

ACS: If we let kids grow up in poverty, in single-parent families, going to bad schools, they're going to grow up and become dependent adults. The cycle will just repeat.

BATES: In other words, just as the 1965 report pointed out, poverty has costs for everyone. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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