For decades, researchers have known about the risks that family instability poses for black children, particularly boys. Such risks were once generally attributed to joblessness, cultural values, or unwed mothers. But one of their biggest driving forces may actually have been the gender imbalance in the black community sparked by mass incarceration. That imbalance was long an underexamined problem for unwed black mothers and their children. And over the last decade, its reduction and the improved educational attainment of black women have given me hope.
Legislative initiatives during the Clinton Administration had profound effects on black families. In the early 1990s, nearly 5 million mothers were on cash welfare. Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare legislation halved the number of mothers on cash welfare. The shift from welfare to work dramatically reduced child poverty, but it also created stresses. While government child-care facilities helped, these mothers still had to balance work and parenthood.
Mass incarceration substantially increased the difficulty of striking that balance. Between 1998 and 2003, the female-to-male ratio among non-incarcerated black Americans, 25–29 years old remained steady at 1.25: five women for every four men. Whether one relied on Gary Becker-inspired marriage models or feminist bargaining models, it was clear that the scarcity of black men gave them a primacy in dictating sexual relations. Elijah Anderson documented how many of these scarce men, especially if they were older and employed, successfully demanded sexual relations without contraceptives. As a result, one-quarter of the children born to black 15- to 17-year-olds were fathered by men at least six years older than their mothers. More generally, in 2000, 15.3 percent of black teenagers became pregnant, leading to 5.5 percent having abortions and 7.7 percent giving birth.
These scarce men also acted irresponsibly with the partners of their children. Reporting on extensive interviews with poor black mothers for The American Prospect, Kathryn Edin wrote, “Many women say they regard men simply as ‘children; ‘no good,’ or ‘low-down dirty dogs.’ Women tend to believe . . . that the men will not (or cannot, in some women’s words) be sexually faithful.” Reflecting on the high male incarceration rates, one black respondent told Edin, “There’s a shortage of men so that they think, ‘I can have more than one woman . . . and I am going to have two or three of them.” Edin pointed to their irresponsibility, quoting another respondent who recalled how her child’s father spent their “son’s Pampers money on partying.”
These irresponsible partners added further stresses, resulting in what Edin labeled “the father-go-round”: vulnerable mothers sequentially partnering with new men. So prevalent was this dynamic that a majority of black women with multiple children had them with different fathers.
These men most often abandoned their children from old relationships once they had fathered children in their new ones, and many of them were abusive to the children their partners had from previous relationships. As a result, child-maltreatment rates grew dramatically in black families, especially among unwed mothers living with men who were not the father of all their children.
Today, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we are rightly appalled by the behavior of powerful men who played out their sexual fantasies on vulnerable women. Why should we be surprised that the same ugly dynamic exists in poor black neighborhoods where scarce men have power over vulnerable women?
As long as black men are considered victims of a white-supremacist society, many liberals fear that any sustained criticisms will only reinforce negative stereotypes. Indeed, to counter these stereotypes, Edin apologized for wrongly accepting the mothers’ narratives in her American Prospect piece and co-wrote Doing the Best I Can, in which fathers’ self-serving narratives were uncritically accepted.
The damage done during this earlier period continued to play itself out in the lives of the children who are now in their high-school years.
The damage done during this earlier period continued to play itself out in the lives of the children who are now in their high-school years. Schools have to tackle the problem of angry black teenage boys with significant behavioral and academic deficits. Many high schools that serve poor black neighborhoods face bad choices: excessive suspensions or allowing disruptive youth to remain in classes. However, there is reason to believe that positive changes have been taking hold over the last decade.
Between 2006 and 2016, diversion programs induced a 30 percent decline in black incarceration. As a result, the black gender ratio among non-institutionalized 25- to 29-year-olds continuously declined until 2011, when it leveled off at 1.08. Many of the men enrolled in diversion programs became more responsible partners and fathers. In addition, prisons began to provide more effective education programs so that a large share of convicts were able to complete their high-school equivalence degree before or soon after their release. Extensive prison-reentry programs further facilitated their successful integration back into society, increasing the share of men with improved behavioral traits. And the changing gender ratio improved the bargaining power of young black women, so that the black-teen birth rate plummeted, declining by 44 percent between 2006 and 2014.
Just as important has been the substantial increase in the educational attainment of black women. In 2016, 35.31 percent of black women 25–29 years old had no more than a high-school degree, down from 48.51 percent in 2003. By contrast, the share of black women 25–29 years old with at least a bachelor’s degree increased from 16.93 percent in 2003 to 25.06 percent in 2016 when an additional 9.42 percent of this group had an associate’s degree. The figures look even better for black women 30–34 years old: In 2016, 28.15 percent of this cohort had at least a bachelor’s degree, and 14.92 had an associate’s degree.
In other words, today there are many fewer vulnerable black women who must put up with problematic partners and many more successful ones who will not allow their children to suffer the emotional abuse and maltreatment that was such a prevalent a decade ago.
These improvements suggest that basing current policies on evidence from the early 2000s is unhelpful. They do not, however, undercut completely ongoing concerns that too many black children are born to unwed parents. There are still too many vulnerable black women stuck with unfit partners, and too many struggling to raise multiple children born to different fathers. And a significant number of black men still end up back in the prison as they age; the gender ratio among black Americans 30–34 years old was 1.17 in 2016. So we still have more to do to combat black-male unemployment and incarceration before we fully turn the corner.