President Obama’s initiative to start trying to improve the lot of young black men is welcome news in more ways than one. It may give us the chance to start putting together the black family as well.
For 50 years now we have offered exclusive support to single mothers and their children. Through a series of myopic bureaucratic oversights, the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), originally adopted in 1940 as a stipend for Social Security’s “widows and orphans,” became a vast subsidy for illegitimacy and single motherhood that has virtually destroyed family formation among African-Americans.
One obvious result has been vast, intergenerational poverty. A recent U.S. Census Survey found the rate of poverty among female-headed households with children under 18 to be 55.5 percent and with children under five, 64.2 percent. What’s the rate of poverty among households headed by a married couple? Take a guess. 3.3 percent. All this is billed as the “feminization of poverty.” But when women have children without getting married, poverty follows as surely as the night follows the day.
Wy did marriage fall apart among the disadvantaged, particularly African-Americans? It is usually attributed to the legacy of institutional racism, going back to slavery, yet the clear evidence is that 70 percent of black children were living in two-parent households as late as the 1950s.
The answer is that the monogamy that we so casually undermined with AFDC is actually a fragile institution. It isn’t at all “natural” but must be constantly reinforced by social norms and some degree of economic support. It definitely cannot withstand the assault of government programs blatantly designed to undermine it. As Charles Murray illustrates in his recent book, Coming Apart, family formation is now rapidly falling apart in the white working class as well.
Monogamy is an artificial social regime that benefits two groups, lower-status men and higher-status women. If we didn’t adhere to monogamy, successful and powerful men would accumulate as many wives as possible – which is what happens among the 75 percent of the world’s cultures but none of its major civilizations. Monogamy gives every man a reasonable opportunity to mate.
But monogamy in turn disadvantages lower-status women because it limits them to a pool of low-status, unproductive men. In a polygamous culture – contemporary Islam, for instance, or huge parts of West Africa – a woman can always become the second and third wives of powerful men instead of having to settle for a man who may barely be able to support her. That’s why, although polygamy is often portrayed as “oppressive to women,” the majority of women in a polygamous societies usually support it. (High-status women, on the other hand, are disadvantaged in that they are forced to share their husbands with second and third wives, but they are generally in the minority.)