One implicit question in Jason DeParle’s American Dream is why the black welfare class was so large a proportion of all African Americans to begin with, and why it wasn’t shrinking faster.
Some of the single welfare mothers he studied had grown up in working class neighborhoods with two employed parents. Children of white working class neighborhoods are likely to move up in class, or reproduce their parents’ lives in new working class areas. Children of the black working class, by contrast, have been much less likely to reproduce their parents’ lives.
DeParle says that the main demographic difference between black working class neighborhoods and other working class neighborhoods is the high proportion of black single mothers. In the particular working class neighborhood that some of his subjects came from, about a third of the African American children grew up with single mothers. This is higher than the single-parent rate in non-black families (the national average is about a fifth), but much lower than the average for all black families, which runs to over half. Children in single-parent households are more vulnerable to the lure of the street.
DeParle also believes that there is another risk factor that black families have that is not so obvious. Almost all of the black working class families he studied had many connections, through family and friends, to the ghetto underclass. For the black working class, the “street” was never far away. This is much less true for the much larger white working class, and is still true when we consider the many different ethnic groups within the non-black majority. In Milwaukee in the ‘90s, the main area of DeParle’s book, half the black families in the city got some kind of welfare. The black working class is, of necessity, a minority among the minority. Moreover, black working class neighborhoods were typically right next to the slums, bringing the street literally to their door.
DeParle says the black working class is more precarious than other working classes because it is the “crossroads” between the middle class and the slums.