Out-of-Wedlock Births in Black America

Forty years ago, a government report on the state of the black family in America warned that almost one out of four black children were born to unmarried mothers. Recent figures suggest that now, almost 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock.

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ED GORDON, host:

More than four decades ago, a controversial report was released by the government that warned the black family was in danger. It stated that one out of four black children were born out of wedlock. Recent figures suggest that now almost 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. Commentator Clarence Page gives us his take on the realities behind these numbers and the state of black marriage as he sees it.

CLARENCE PAGE:

Forty years ago, a blockbuster leaked out of the White House. It wasn't a national security leak or a high-level scandal, although some people treated it like one. It was a confidential memo to President Johnson titled, in the language of those times, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." The author was an assistant Labor secretary named Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The Moynihan report on the black family warned that almost one out of four black children were born to unmarried parents, more than twice the rate for whites. The unraveling of the black family, Moynihan wrote, caused a tangle of pathology, including high rates of delinquency, joblessness and school failure.

Reaction to the Moynihan report was heated and harsh. Its timing didn't help. Someone leaked it to the press in August only a few days before the Watts section of Los Angeles exploded in race riots. Black leaders and social scientists in particular were offended that the Johnson administration might be blaming the victims for the problems of poverty, discrimination and injustice that led to riots in black neighborhoods. They weren't. Quite the contrary. Lyndon Johnson successfully pushed more civil rights, antipoverty and other bills than any president before him, but the decline of black marriage continued. By 1980, more than half of black births were out of wedlock. Today, it's more than two-thirds. And here's something Moynihan did not anticipate. Marriage has declined among white parents, too. White out-of-wedlock births have increased to a rate higher than the one in four that black births reached 40 years ago. I have yet to hear anyone talk about a tangle of white pathology.

Most folks concede that marriage is down all around. Few agree on what can or should be done about it. Get people off welfare? We've done that. The drastic welfare reform Newt Gingrich proposed and President Clinton signed nine years ago has succeeded beyond expectations. More welfare mothers are working. Fewer black children live in poverty. Yet while black child poverty has declined, black marriage has not increased. Part of the problem? Black men continued to leave the job market despite welfare reform and the '90s economic boom. Welfare reform has done a good job of putting welfare mothers to work. But 40 years after Moynihan dared to ask in his memo, the question lingers: What about the fathers?

GORDON: Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Chicago Tribune.

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