Moynihan and Patterson Get It Wrong

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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One would have hoped that the fact that two presidents (i.e., Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and one Supreme Court Justice (i.e., Sonia Sotomayor) spent at least part of their childhoods in fatherless households would lead to a more careful and critical examination of female single-parent families. Unfortunately, this has not occurred.

James T. Patterson's New York Times op-ed, "The Moynihan Future" is built on the presumption, taken from the “Moynihan Report,” that a female single-parent family is a bad or dysfunctional family. From there, Patterson presumes that the problems facing blacks are to a large degree due to the fact that a large share of black families are female single-parent families. Patterson is wrong in both presumptions.

The share of black nonmarital births has risen dramatically since the 1960s. Patterson observes that nearly three-quarters of births among blacks today are out-of-wedlock. But while the rise in nonmarital births is real, the decline of black America has not occurred.

The lowest black poverty rate on record, 22.5 percent, occurred in 2000, 35 years after the “Moynihan Report.” The black poverty rate was twice as high the year Moynihan wrote his report. In 1970, 58.4 percent of blacks 25 to 29 years old obtained a high school diploma or GED. In 2009, 88.9 percent of blacks in this age group completed high school. In the 1970s, black communities were almost four times as violent as they are today. Black nonmarital births have increased and the black poverty rate has declined, black educational attainment has increased, and the black violent crime rate has decreased.

Moynihan and Patterson's claims fail utterly when one looks at these simple metrics. Nonmarital births have increased and negative outcomes have decreased for blacks. A number of more sophisticated studies also reject the implicit stigmatization of black female single-parent families in Moynihan and Patterson's arguments.

The most convincing one that I have found is based on a longitudinal study of children in Chicago.1 The children studied are almost all poor and almost all black. The statistical analysis conducted by the researchers allows one to compare two-parent and single-parent families across eight outcomes based on different aspects of education, employment, income and incarceration.

In none of the outcomes is there a negative effect on children from being raised by a single parent. None.

Moynihan was right that nonmarital births would increase, but he was wrong about everything else.

Of course, it is true that blacks are still much worse off than whites. But focusing on female single-parent families is a distraction from the real issues.

Patterson needs to ponder why is it that blacks with college degrees do so much worse in the labor market than similarly educated whites. And, why does the United States have the most brutal and socially destructive criminal justice system in the West with black men as its main target?

When Patterson finds answers to these questions he will not only understand the cause of black socioeconomic inequality today, he will also understand why black nonmarital birth rates are so high. Unemployed or incarcerated black men are not good marriage prospects.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

1. See Suh-Ruu Ou, Joshua P. Mersky, Arthur J. Reynolds, Kristy M. Kohler, "Alterable Predictors of Educational Attainment, Income, and Crime: Findings from an Inner-City Cohort," Social Service Review (March 2007): 85-127.

For some additional research showing that female single-parent families are not the cause of black-white inequality, see Juan Battle, Wanda Alderman-Swain, and Alia R. Tyner, “Using an Intersectionality Model to Explain the Educational Outcomes from Black Students in a Variety of Family Configurations,” Race, Gender & Class 12(1), January 2005: 126-151; Thomas DeLeire, and Leonard M. Lopoo, Family Structure and the Economic Mobility of Children (Washington D.C.: Economic Mobility Project 2010); Keith Finlay, and David Neumark, "Is Marriage Always Good for Children? Evidence from Families Affected by Incarceration," Working Paper 13928, (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research 2008); Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr., Thomas D. Cook, Jacquelynne Eccles, Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Arnold Sameroff, Managing to Make It: Urban Families and Adolescent Success, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 1999); Donna K. Ginther, and Robert A. Pollak, “Family Structure and Children’s Educational Outcomes: Blended Families, Stylized Facts, and Descriptive Regressions,” Demography 14(4), November 2004: 671-696; Gary Painter, and David I. Levine, “Daddies, Devotion, and Dollars: How Do They Matter for Youth?” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 63(4), October 2004: 813-850.

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