The New York Times headline “2-Parent Black Families Showing Gains,” Wednesday seemed like great news. ( Full disclosure: I am briefly quoted in the article.) After decades of decline, more black kids are finally growing up with their mothers and fathers!
Alas, check out the third paragraph of the piece: “The Census Bureau attributed an indeterminate amount of the increase to revised definitions adopted in 2007, which identify as parents any man and woman living together, whether or not they are married or the child’s biological parents.” What the data is really saying, it turns out, is that more black children are living with a woman who may or may not be their mother, and a man who either may or may not be their father, and may or may not be married to the woman who may or may not be their mother.
James Taranto had an apt response to this Orwellianism. “The problem of illegitimacy and broken families had seemed intractable for decades, but the Census Bureau has been able to make a significant dent in it, at virtually no cost to the taxpayer, merely by redefining the word parents.” Equally disturbing is the Times’s complete obliviousness to the import of the Census Bureau’s word play. “The number of black children being raised by two parents appears to be edging higher,” the piece begins. Well, that’s only if “raising” is the same thing as “living with.” If the increase in children living with two “parents” is due, for instance, to a growth in the percentage of mothers cohabiting temporarily with their boyfriends, then “raising” is another bit of dissembling.
Now, it could be that the Times, like, apparently, the Census Bureau, thinks these are distinctions without a difference. Fathers, stepfathers, husbands, boyfriends — who cares which guy is “raising” the children? But that’s exactly the question the paper needed, but declined, to unpack. In fact, the paper missed the real story. It’s not that more kids are growing up with their own mother and father; nothing in the Times article leads to that conclusion. It’s that one of our premier government agencies has decided it’s not a framework even worth measuring.
What makes this decision by both the Census Bureau and the Times all the more striking is its flouting of the reigning social science proving the advantages of kids growing up with their own married parents. Despite the fact that they are at reduced risk of poverty, on most measures children living with stepfathers are no better off than those growing up with single mothers. The article quotes Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin as saying that today three percent of American children are growing up with their two unmarried parents. What it did not mention was that the cohabiting couples are far more unstable than married couples (yes, even more unstable than the over 40 percent of couples who divorce), and stability turns out to be a major benefit for kids.
Black Families Showing Gains? I guess it depends what the definition of “gains” is.