On poverty, race, families and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

On poverty, race, families and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan August 29, 2013

Other than arguments about the United States becoming entangled in Syria, and Miley Cyrus coming unwound at the MTV shindig, the big story the past few days here in Beltway land has been — thank God — the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial.

The other day, the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway touched on some of the wonderful coverage that led up to this event. Check that out. And here is another faith-themed report from Religion News Service. Read that one too.

Still, I would like to note what I think is a religion ghost in one of the major Washington Post stories linked to these events, an important story that ran under this headline: “Fifty years after March on Washington, economic gap between blacks, whites persists.”

Let me state right up front that this story contains all kinds of painful information about race and poverty that all Americans need to take seriously. I say that as a old-school conservative Democrat who has a large portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his office. Here’s the top of the story:

Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963.

When it comes to household income and wealth, the gaps between blacks and whites have widened. On other measures, the gaps are roughly the same as they were four decades ago. The poverty rate for blacks, for instance, continues to be about three times that of whites.

Later in the story, there is this information that hints at some of the complex realities inside these horrible numbers:

The nation’s changing economic landscape has affected nearly all workers, and by some measures black Americans have seen clear improvements.

The black middle class, measured by the number of families earning at least $100,000 a year, has grown fivefold in the past 50 years. Now, about one in 10 black households is in that income category. The percentage of blacks older than 25 with high school diplomas has more than tripled. The number of blacks who are college graduates has grown by a factor of 10. Overall, blacks’ buying power is estimated to be nearing $1 trillion, while an increasing number of African Americans serve as company chief executives.

Yet, racial economic disparities are mostly unchanged and in some cases are growing. In 1963, black families earned 55 cents for every dollar earned by whites. In 2011, blacks earned 66 cents for every dollar earned by whites. The black unemployment rate averaged 11.6 percent between 1963 and 2012, more than double the white jobless rate over that time.

The black poverty rate of 55.1 percent was just over three times the white rate in 1959. It dropped to 32.2 percent in 1972. But since then, progress has been slow. In 2011, 27.6 percent of black households were in poverty — nearly triple the 9.8 percent white rate, according to the Census Bureau.

Like I said, this article is packed with troubling news hooks.

But I still couldn’t help but notice a few things that were missing. Like these words — “fathers,” “mothers” and “marriage.” Come to think of it, the word “church” is missing too, and that’s a word that is hard to miss in discussions of black families and their lives.

I also think that black church leaders would notice that this story talks about black families, but it does not include information on a crucial breakdown within that demographic landscape. Is it safe to say that the economic wellbeing of intact black families — homes containing a father and a mother — are quite different than those of broken black families, or black homes in which marriages never formed? There is, of course, a moral component to that question, one that is much more likely to be discussed in black-church pulpits than in secular statistical studies.

Thus, I couldn’t help but notice that the story also never makes any references to some of the most controversial pieces of work ever done on these topics. I am referring to the writings on urban poverty of the great scholar and Democrat, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The crucial question here, a secular question that is also a religion question: Who is getting left behind in this society and why is this happening?

In his prophetic work in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Moynihan said that the intact family is the ultimate safety net. In the future, he said, poverty would be best defined in terms of two-parent homes (in other words, who has a father) rather than in terms of racism, alone.

How is this Washington Post piece defining the word “families”? Is this definition consistent?

How would this great Democrat — meaning Moynihan — have critiqued this piece?

There are some suggestions in the language at the top of this 2005 City Journal piece noting the lasting impact of Moynihan’s work, and the attempts of many cultural leaders (including elite journalists) to ignore his message:

Read through the megazillion words on class, income mobility, and poverty in the recent New York Times series “Class Matters” and you still won’t grasp two of the most basic truths on the subject: 1. entrenched, multigenerational poverty is largely black; and 2. it is intricately intertwined with the collapse of the nuclear family in the inner city.

By now, these facts shouldn’t be hard to grasp. Almost 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. Those mothers are far more likely than married mothers to be poor, even after a post-welfare-reform decline in child poverty. They are also more likely to pass that poverty on to their children. Sophisticates often try to dodge the implications of this bleak reality by shrugging that single motherhood is an inescapable fact of modern life, affecting everyone from the bobo Murphy Browns to the ghetto “baby mamas.” Not so; it is a largely low-income—and disproportionately black—phenomenon. The vast majority of higher-income women wait to have their children until they are married. The truth is that we are now a two-family nation, separate and unequal—one thriving and intact, and the other struggling, broken, and far too often African-American.

A moral and religious ghost? Would the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., have avoided that topic?

Just asking.

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  • Julia B

    These days saying, or even implying, that single parenthood is not good for the child, or not as good as an intact family, is seen as infringing on people’s reproductive rights. And everybody knows that reproductive rights and autonomy are supreme goods and therefore opinions to the contrary need not be mentioned in news stories.

    Instead of covering what everybody is saying or doing, the idea today is to not give a platform to ignorant people with the wrong opinions.

    A woman told me that the press didn’t give both sides of the civil rights positions back in the 60s, so this is nothing new. I begged to differ with her, having been in college as that era started. We read all about Faubus, George Wallace and others who were dead set against integration of schools, as well as about the Freedom Riders, etc. We read and heard the various opinions of congress people. In the news section, there was generally no advocacy – that was saved for the op ed pages. The woman was reluctant to believe me.

    I think it started with Watergate. My reporter brother (at the Commercial Appeal) told me his classmates mostly were there to learn to improve the world like the guys at the Washington Post, Bernsteing & Woodard, who became famous and unseated a bad President. Advocacy crept in. No more platforms for unenlightened people on the wrong side of history.

    Result: we get huge coverage of less than 100,000 people turning out for the new March on Washingtonwith no conservative speakers and almost no coverage of year after year of much bigger crowds of those anti-abortion people who want to deny people’s reproductive health rights.