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Failing Families

NO other domestic problems are as intractable as those of the inner-city underclass. Far from showing signs of resolution, many of these problems - including crime, violence, drug use, and joblessness - are deepening. There is no question that these social pathologies derive in part from racial discrimination. But since they surged just as the US began making greater efforts to end discrimination, it is obvious that the root dynamic is something more complex than discrimination itself. As sociologist William Julius Wilson observed: ``Despite a high rate of poverty in ghetto neighborhoods throughout the first half of the 20th century, rates of inner-city joblessness, teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, female- headed families, welfare dependency, and serious crime were significantly lower than in later years and did not reach catastrophic proportions until the mid-1970s .... Even if racism continues to be a factor in the social and economic progress of some blacks, can it be used to explain the sharp increase in inner-city social dislocations since 1970?''

Twenty-five years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Labor Department official in the Johnson administration, saw a new set of problems emerging in the black family. He wrote that ``the Negro community is dividing between a stable middle-class group that is steadily growing stronger and more successful, and an increasingly disorganized and disadvantaged lower-class group.'' The latter's plight, he concluded, is expressed in the deterioration of family life in the inner-city ghettos.

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In 1965, Moynihan's report was controversial. Today, its finding of family deterioration, seen linked to a host of other problems, is accepted by analysts across the political spectrum. This is because the rising dislocations Moynihan detected in the early stages have since progressed. In 1960, 74 percent of all black families included both husband and wife. By 1970, married couple families had declined to a 68 percent share; over the next decade their proportion plunged another 13 points. A new Census report shows that in 1990 married couples made up just half of all black families.

The implications for raising children are great. In 1988, 64 percent of all births to black women were out of wedlock. A 1990 Census report revealed that 56 percent of all black families with children under 18 years were single-parent, female-headed households. The association between family status and poverty, evident in all groups, is particularly sharp for blacks. The latest Census study found that for black married-couple families, the 1989 median income was $30,650. For ``female householder'' black families it was $11,630.

Analysts differ on why the decline of the ``traditional'' two-parent family came about - and what to do about it. Some conservatives see the governmental welfare system as culpable in providing economic incentives for family breakup and discouraging individual responsibility. Some liberals say the government has not done enough - for instance implementing programs to cut inner-city joblessness. Both sides are probably right in part.

Increasingly, however, the argument is shifting to a recognition that problems facing black families may be acute examples of problems affecting all family groups. Whites began experiencing historically unprecedented family dislocations at the same time blacks did. The latter's legacy of discrimination and economic problems left them more vulnerable to these forces.

What happened? Two years ago, Senator Moynihan wrote that along with America's entry into the postindustrial era ``has come a new form of social distress, associated with the `post-marital' family.'' While there isn't a fully adequate explanation of this development, the indication is that the radical redefinition and extension of individualism which transformed so much of American social life in the 1960s and 1970s is a root cause.

In ``Habits of the Heart,'' sociologist Robert Bellah and four colleagues argue that this redefinition left the self so sovereign and its claims for personal reward so narrow and abstract that it was hard for collective institutions like the family to work satisfactorily. If this reasoning is right, and I believe it is, then we will need to find answers to the special problems of black Americans in acts and measures that curb the excesses of modern individualism and thereby strengthen family life for al l Americans.