30 May 2012

Has Bad Parenting Destroyed The Black Family?

A recent paper by a professor at Howard University (the Harvard of historically black colleges in the United States), argues that "black family instability" and "social violence" in the black community has as a central cause a parenting style that involves "obedience training and rigid physical violence including emotional neglect" traceable all of the way back to West Africa, while not crediting economic causes or concepts such as a "culture of honor."

I don't agree, but have linked to the article to make clear that my view is not the only one out there to explain very low marriage rates among modern African Americans, and more generally, the factors that drive marriage rates. As a rebuttal, I offer an alternative explanation.

The Economically Driven Marriage Rate Hypothesis

Regular readers of this blog know that I have argued instead, relatively consistently for many years, that marriage formation and divorce are driven, at a first order level of approximation, at least, by the extent to which wives are economic dependent upon husbands. The most powerful reason that women marry the fathers of their children, and stay married once they are married, is that they depend economically upon their husbands. It isn't romantic. It isn't the complete answer. It isn't true in every individual case. But, it does explain the overall trends and patterns that we observe quite well.

In this narrative, black family instability (and emerging working class white family instability) is driven by an economic situation in which men are less likely to have graduated from high school or completed some additional higher education than the women who are their prospective spouses, are likely to be unemployed for an extended period or repeatedly during the course of a marriage, and are likely to have incomes when employed that do not greatly exceed (or are less than) the women who are their prospective spouses.

Some of this is question begging. Even if this is the mechanism at work, why do these circumstances arise? Why are working class men, in general, and black men, in particular, worse off than their middle class white peers relative to women of the same circumstances? But, some of these secondary questions also have plausible answers.

What Economic Factors Changed To Shift Marriage And Divorce Rates When They Actually Changed?

But, any hypothesis that looks to deep rooted cultural sources of today's family instability has a serious obstacle before it. Sixty or seventy years ago, in segregated, pre-Civil Rights Act America, it didn't exist. There was not a meaningful racial gap in marriage or divorce rate in the United States eighty or ninety years after the abolition of slavery, in the waning days of de jure segregation based on race and legally and socially acceptable workplace discrimination against women. Moynihan sounded the alarm about the demise of marriage in black America in the late 1960s, and the trend continued for another thirty years or more.

Twin forces have been at work in the time period where marriage has weakened.

First, the economic prospects of non-college educated men has stagnated due to fundamental changes in our economy that have favored intellectual contributions over labor, much of which has been automated, seen a labor demand contractions because the same work can be done more efficiently with technology, been off shored, or been impacted by an influx of "fit immigrant" labor.

Second, economic prospects for almost all women have improved as legal and social conventions that kept women out of a wide variety of careers crumbled. A variety of fundamental economic changes also pushed women out of the home and into the paid workforce. Women had fewer children due to the demographic change associated everywhere with increased economic prosperity, due to the improved chances of a child surviving to adulthood, due to the availability of effective birth control and due to the establishment of social safety nets other than one's children in a parent's old age. New technologies (laundry machines, dishwashers, ready to wear clothing, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners) made housework less time consuming even in households that didn't have servants. A more mechanized economy reduced need for the kind of physically demanding labor where men have more of a built in advantge on average. A reduced demand for child labor and extended period of public education for children that freed up women's time while reducing the early economic benefit of having many children. Together, these economic fundamentals, in addition to anti-discrimination laws and changing societal views of women's proper roles have provided a fundamental economic driver for increased labor force participation by women.

It is elementary, if one accepts economic dependency as a first order driver of marriage and divorce rates, that where men's economic prospects are stagnating or declining, and women's economic prospects are surging, that women's economic dependence on men will decline and marriages will become as a result more fragile.

It is not elementary or obvious, but also appears to be true, that middle class women with college eductions married to college educated men, are in fact, more economically dependent upon their husbands than less well educated and affluent women, once they have children. The economic penalty for having children and giving reduced attention to a career in professions that call for college educations is often very great, and college educated men are simply more reliable and substantial providers in our economy than less educated men.

The Educational Gender Gap

Greater economic prospects for women, in general, have strengthened the economic incentives for women to become better educated. And, on average, given the same incentive to pursue an education, girls, more often on average than boys, have better study habits and are prone to refrain from disrupting the classroom in the way that education is currently organized. In short, the average girl's conduct is better suited to being a good student than the average boy's conduct. For children who are in the middle to the top of academic ability, as most children of educated parents who tend to be middle class or upper middle class themselves, the differences in the degree of "good student" behavior between boys and girls isn't great enough to drag a child to greatly impaired levels of academic outcomes. But, at the margins, for children of parents who aren't educated and didn't have much academic ability themselves which is a factor that helped to cause them to fall short of middle class economic success, the differences between boys and girls in "good student" behavior can have a powerful and cumulative effect.

Put more concretely, boys, in general, make more trouble and are less diligent studiers on average, than girls. And, for poor or working class black kids who don't have college educated parents in their lives, that different leads boys to lag the girls a great deal in school, and for that gap in turn to undermine their economic success as adults (and makes crime, the vast majority of which is driven by poverty more attractive). This, in turn, leaves black women with fewer black men upon which they can safely depend economically, and it so happens that black women often prefer black men as fathers for their children, even when they aren't good husband material.

Now, this would seem to leave unexplained why women who are capable of earning college degrees, but want children and want to rely on a husband while they have children, end up pursuing college degrees. In part, women appear to make the choice to have children and rely on a husband while making their own careers a second priority (which is very common in middle and upper middle class couples) only at the point that they are on the brink of doing so, and a significant minority of women choose to focus on careers and often to refrain from having children at all (or at least to postpone having children to the last possible moment permitted by biology). In part, the best possible colleges (and graduate programs) are good places to meet husbands upon whom women can afford to depend economically.

Poor Parenting As Effect More Than Cause

The cycle of child abuse and neglect, even when it doesn't rise to the level of legally sanctionable conduct, and the way one raises one's own child is admittedly a real phenomena that isn't easy to escape and makes cause and effect relationships complex. But, there is also quite compelling evidence that child abuse and neglect is profoundly magnified by poverty and by having unrelated adults in a household with children, both of which can be produced by fractured families and poor economic prospects. A generation of parents who manage to stay out of poverty and keep a marriage together while their are children in the home has a good shot at breaking the cycle. Overall, the case that child abuse and neglect, including poor parenting tending in that direction that is not legally sanctionable is more driven by poverty and familiy instability, than it is a cause of it, seems like the more reasonable conclusion.


This post obvious isn't a general theory of everything. It doesn't purport to answer questions like what is driving the class divisions in our society, or the demographics of those social classes in the first place, only the implications of those economic divisions in the context of everything else on marriage and family stability.

But, in my view it is important to first, find empirically sound that appear to drive major social issues. You won't come up with the right solutions unless you know the true causes. It doesn't make sense to resort to arguments that causes like moral failings and bad parenting drive these problems when those are aspects of human nature to a great extent that have roots from time immemorial, and the problems we see are not nearly so ancient. Resorting arguments related to moral failings and half millenia old cultural legacies is a variant on the fallacy of assuming that the world always has been and always will be the way that it is now, when in fact, the world is profoundly different than it was a century ago, or even more recently.

Finally, I don't want to inaccurately convey the impression that the most naiive and direct response to an economic dependence hypothesis in marriage implies, i.e. that the solution to our problems is to leave women in thraldom and turn back the clock. We as a society need women's full contributions to our interhousehold economy to reach the kind of affluence we have as a society. It isn't so surprising that it might take more than one or two generations to fully retool our economic and social institutions to achieve that objective without experiencing negative side effects. But, it takes time and an understanding of the forces that are driving how we are behaving now, often without consciously realizing why we are acting as we are ourselves even, to devise better alternative that meet all of our economic, cultural and personal goals better.

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