Published: Monday, January 10, 1994
`U' STUDY LOOKS AT ISSUE OF RACE, SINGLE-PARENT FAMILIES
A study that compares census data from today with data from the
past 130 years is offering new insights into the debate over the
explosion of single-parent households, particularly among blacks.
For 80 years, from 1880 to 1960, the proportion of black
children living with a single parent held steady around 30 percent,
according to the new research by the University of Minnesota. During
the same time, the proportion of white children living with one
parent stayed at about 10 percent.
But in recent years, those figures have climbed - to 63
percent for black children and 19 percent for white.
The new study by Steven Ruggles, a University of Minnesota
history professor, is one of the first generated by a university
project that, for the first time, allows scholars to compare census
data back to the 1860s.
"The key categories of black household structure - single
parent and extended - were remarkably stable, at least through
1960," the study said. "This supports recent studies which have
argued that the distinctive features of the African-American family
have deep historical roots."
But black children historically were still two to three times as
likely to live with just one parent as were white children, said
Ruggles. And in all census years, white households were less
fragmentary or extended than black households, he said. Theories on
why have been the subject of much debate, and include the ravages of
slavery on black families and other economic or cultural factors.
"The analysis confirms the findings of recent studies that the
high incidence of single parenthood and children residing without
parents among blacks is not a recent phenomena," Ruggles
The issue of race and single-parent families has been the
subject of enormous controversy. A disproportionate number of black
children have been raised by single parents, a trend that can lead
to family instability, poverty and welfare use.
Is that because there's something in the culture and values of
black families that encourages single parenthood? Or have economic
opportunities, racism and the legacy of segregation stifled family
formation? And what about the majority of black families led by two
parents over the past century, in spite of tremendous odds? Isn't
that a sign of strength, not weakness?
Those are among the questions typically raised by smaller
studies on this issue. Ruggles doesn't answer most of those
questions in his study, which is more concerned with illustrating
the differences in black and white households in the past century.
The study showed that:
- Starting around 1940, black children were increasingly likely
to live in a home without a father. In 1940, for example, 19 percent
of black children between the ages of 10 and 14 were living with
their mothers only, a figure that jumped to nearly 47 percent in
In white households, 8 percent of the children between 10 and
14 lived with their mothers only in 1940, compared with 15 percent
- The extended black family, often considered a source of
strength and stability, has declined steadily since 1940, as has the
white extended family. In 1940, 26 percent of black households
contained extended families - meaning they included other relatives
besides parents and their biological children. By 1980, only 17
percent of the families were extended. Likewise, 17 percent of white
households were extended in 1940, compared with 6 1/2 percent in
- The proportion of white children growing up with one parent
is growing at a faster rate than that of black children -
undoubtedly because the number of one-parent white families was
lower to start with. The proportion of white children residing
without two parents increased by 124 percent from 1960 to 1990,
compared with a 96 percent increase among blacks.
- Black and white households have grown increasingly different
in the past century. The study looked at six types of families:
single-parent, couples with children, couples without children,
individuals living without any relatives, and two types of extended
The study doesn't explain the enormous leap in black
single-parent households in the 1960s. But many scholars trace the
roots of the trend to the migration of southern blacks to northern
cities, where families often were separated. As early as the late
1950s, however, there were shrinking numbers of blue-collar jobs in
central cities, where blacks were concentrated. In 1958, for
example, black male unemployment became twice as high as white male
unemployment for the first time in history, writes Andrew
Billingsley, a nationally known scholar on the black family.
Unemployment, in turn, reduced men's desirability and
availability as marriage partners, Billingsley and others have
argued. And at the same time, black institutions such as churches,
schools, social and civic groups that helped sustain a sense of
community were diluted by integration, black middle-class flight and
social changes. The 1970s ushered in an era of growing acceptance of
single parenthood, and welfare fueled the trend, they argue.
The issue of race and family hit the spotlight in 1965, when
then Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a
report that blamed the deteriorating quality of life in inner-city
black communities to a "tangle of pathology" in the black family.
The report attributed the "pathology" to a legacy of slavery,
humiliation and unemployment that so degraded black men that it led
to most lower-income black families being headed by women.
The report sparked a heated national debate that continues
today. Some theorists say it wasn't "pathology" but cultural
differences rooted in African heritage and the legacy of slavery
that lead to nonnuclear families. In the opposite camp, others argue
that the black family was predominantly nuclear for nearly a century
in spite of the tremendous odds against it. The boom in single
parenthood is a relatively new phenomena that is rooted in the lack
of economic opportunities, they say.
But scholars ask why more black families weren't headed by
single parents during the Depression or any other time, if economics
were the root of single parenthood, because blacks historically have
had fewer opportunities than whites because of racism, other
A newer line of argument is that black families always were
different from white families and today's trend is simply a
continuation of that pattern. Ruggles puts his analysis in this
"All things considered, the cultural explanations appear just as
persuasive as the economic ones," according to the study, which is
to be published in the American Sociological Review this year. "It
is likely that there have been persistent differences between blacks
and whites in norms about residence with spouses and children. Given
the radical differences in their background and experiences, it
would be remarkable if African-Americans and whites in 1880 had an
identical set of family values."
The census project upon which the research is based is a gold
mine for testing social and history theories, said Ruggles.
"So much of social theory was invented in a vacuum," said
Ruggles. "Now for the first time we can systematically look at
historical data [to test the theories]" said Ruggles.
See microfilm for chart.
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