During a recent dinner with my daughter, Nora, we got into an interesting discussion about Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his Brown Bag story.
Earlier this year, Ryan was attempting to make the point that there was no need for schools to have free lunches, which he said “provided a full stomach but an empty soul.” Ryan was repeating a story he had heard from Eloise Anderson, who served in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s cabinet. Ryan was attempting to make the point that children had rather have a brown bag lunch fixed by their parents to take to school instead of the school providing them with free food.
As an aside, this story subsequently earned Ryan four Pinocchios on The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” feature and the ridicule of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart since the boy in the story actually advocated for a free lunch.
Nora is a teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the most affluent counties in the country. Unfortunately, the school sits in the middle of a disadvantaged area, and 65 percent of the students receive free or reducedprice meals. She commented that Rep. Ryan should visit her school for a first-hand look at the reality of child hunger that exists even in the middle of wealth. At her school the children who qualify are fed a free breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These are often the only meals they get — and they don’t refuse them to make a political statement.
The school has a cafeteria, but since the program does not pay for dinner, that meal is provided free by local churches and other support organizations. In addition, she said, brown bags of food are provided to the children on Fridays so that they and their families will have something to eat over the weekend.
The majority of these children are from poor, black, single parent families.
In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who at that time was Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson administration, produced the report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The report has been politically and racially divisive for decades.
Moynihan’s thesis was that the progress toward racial equality would be held back because so many black children were being raised by single parents. He argued persuasively that the black family was a by-product not just of the environment but of a matriarchal family culture tracing it roots to slavery. Moynihan attributed the increase in single black parents largely to the precarious economic position of black men, many of whom were no longer able to play their traditional role as their family’s primary breadwinner. Moynihan argued that growing up in homes without a male breadwinner reduced black children’s chances of climbing out of poverty, and that the spread of such families would make it hard for blacks to take advantage of the legal and institutional changes flowing from Johnson’s civil rights legislation.
The Democrats ran with the report and ramped up the Aid for Dependent Children (AFDC) program while the Republicans bemoaned the rise of the “welfare queen.” This conflict has been raging ever since. Moynihan was concerned by the fact that in 1964 the out-of-wedlock births among black women was 25 percent.
Should he have been worried?
Moynihan was demonized but clearly prescient in thinking that America’s black families were changing in a fundamental way. In 1965, roughly 25 percent of black children and five percent of white children lived in families headed by an unmarried mother. By the 1980s these percentages had reached about 50 percent among blacks and 15 percent among whites. After 1980 the rate of increase in single families began to slow. In the 1990s, 54 percent of black children were being raised by an unmarried mother. Among white single parents the rate rose slowly through 1990s and now stands at about 36 percent.
This year Sara McLanahan, Princeton University, and Christopher Jencks, Harvard Kennedy School, produced a document entitled, Was Moynihan Right? This study shows the out-of-wedlock births among black women is now 72 percent. Among Latinos the rate is 54 percent, while among whites the rate is still 36 percent. Even with the increase of out-of-wedlock births, the racial makeup of single-mother families has not changed significantly. For example, in 1970, 31 percent of single-parent families were black, 68 percent were white, and 1 percent were “other race.” In 2013, the figures were 30 percent black, 62 percent white, and 8 percent “other.”
Strangely, nowadays no one seems shocked by these statistic or at least wants to admit their shock. I suppose because of the furor raised by the Moynihan report.
These statistics have unfortunate consequences for the children involved. For example, there is consistent evidence that a child of an unmarried mother reduces their chances of employment, increases the chances that a child will divorce as an adult, and that a daughter will also have a birth out-of-wedlock. In addition, children with unmarried mothers will normally have a biological father who is in prison, beats his partner, cannot find or keep a steady job, and/or makes his living by selling drugs.
Unmarried mothers have seldom done well in school. Many lack even a high school diploma and few have completed college. If these mothers can find work, their earnings are usually lower than working married mothers. Their hours are often long, erratic, or both. Unmarried mothers are also more likely than married mothers to have physical and mental health problems, and less likely to have habits or skills that help children escape from poverty.
Obviously none of these characteristics can be expected to produce a successful child. Neither can our current prison population rate.
The Prison Population
A recent Pew Research Study entitled “ Trends in American Values: 1987-2012” highlighted the growing black prison problem. For example, although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The normal rate of incarceration for countries comparable to the United States is around 100 prisoners per 100,000 residents. The U.S. rate is 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents, or, as of 2014, about 2.3 million prisoners in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories. Not included in these figures are 3,981,090 people on probation and 851,662 people on parole. This amounts to over six million Americans.
In addition, there is a tremendous amount of jail churn since 688,000 people are released from prisons each year while almost 12 million people cycle through local jails each year.
Men make up 90 percent of the prison and local jail population and the majority of those are in their 20s and early 30s. According to a recent survey the average state prisoner has a 10th grade education, and about 70 percent have not completed high school. Incarceration rates are significantly higher for Blacks and Latinos than for Whites. In 2010, black men were incarcerated at a rate of 4,347 per 100,000 residents; Latinos were incarcerated at 1,775 per 100,000, and white men were incarcerated at 678 per 100,000.
Becky Pettit, a University of Washington sociologist, writes that blacks, ages 18-34, are at least six times more likely to be incarcerated than young white men. She found that 37 percent of young black males without a high school diploma were more likely to be in prison or jail on any given day than the 26 percent working. She went on to say that “over the past 35 years the penal population has increased five-fold. There are 2.3 million Americans now behind bars and one in 31 American adults is now under some form of correctional supervision. Nowhere is incarceration more prevalent than in the African American community. My research shows that one in nine black men was incarcerated on any given day in 2008 and that 37 percent of young, black, male dropouts were behind bars.”
These statistics are a sad commentary of the state of our country, particularly when blacks currently make up about 13 percent of our population, and when we have a black president and a growing black middle class. Unfortunately, it seems America has lost an entire generation of black adults.
The only example that black men seem to serve to their children living in a single parent family is that a prison term is a rite of passage to black adulthood.
J.T. Oney was born and raised in southeastern Kentucky. He served more than 40 years with the Department of Defense in various military, intelligence and security organizations before retiring in 2000. After teaching for 11 years at a small college in Northern Virginia, Oney is again retired and living in Mayking. In addition to serving as Adjunct Professor at Southeast Kentucky Community College, he is the author of eight fiction and non-fiction books.