A Father Is Not Enough

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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But if we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing – missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.
--Senator Barack Obama

We can all agree that black men who raise children without a spouse are real fathers and not men who are acting like boys. The figure below allows us to examine the fate of these men and their children relative to similar white men. In 2006, 26 percent of these unmarried, black male-headed households with children were in poverty compared with 13.6 percent of similar white households. As far as poverty is concerned, it is better to be white than to be black. Even among married couple families with children, this is the case. Nine percent of these black families were in poverty in 2006 but only 3.7 percent of white families.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Poverty Tables.

These comparisons highlight that there is more to the socioeconomic disadvantage that black families face than simply the absence of men. Even when men are present black families are significantly worse off than white families. In other words, the foundations of the black family are weaker because of deeper racial issues, but many black leaders today seem determined to avoid this fact.

The people condemning black men are missing two important points. First, we are not living in the 1950s anymore, for no group does marriage have the same weight today as it did then. Even pro-marriage activists get divorced today. In the past, divorce and out-of-wedlock births were a source of shame for people of all political persuasions. That was then this is now.

Second, the people criticizing black men have the causality backwards. They assume that if we increase marriage rates, we can reduce negative outcomes like poverty. But they are not considering that the reverse may be true: if we reduce poverty and other negative outcomes, we will increase marriage rates.

There are lots of reasons to believe that if we improve the socioeconomic condition of poor blacks we will increase black marriage rates. Currently, for whites and blacks, the more educated are more likely to marry. If we improve blacks’ educational outcomes by addressing socioeconomic inequalities, then it is likely that more blacks will marry.

In America, people tend to marry people of the same race and class background. This means that the poorest and least-educated black women would in most cases be paired with the poorest and least-educated black men. These black men have high incarceration rates and high mortality rates. The incarceration and mortality rates mean that there simply aren’t enough of them around for all poor black women. Until we address, the social, economic and political factors that lead to the low numbers of these black men available for marriage, the marriage project will face an insurmountable numerical limit.

The poor and less-educated black men who are available for marriage have low employment rates. It seems reasonable to assume that men with jobs are more likely to married because they can contribute economically to a family. Until black leaders find a way to address the deep social and economic problems causing blacks to be disproportionately poor and less-educated, I would not predict an increase in marriage rates.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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