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Published: Monday, January 10, 1994
Edition: METRO
Section: NEWS
Page#: 01A


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

in 1990.

- 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

scholars argue.

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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