Tuesday, September 02, 2008

American Dream 1: Pre-Welfare Chaos

This week I will be blogging on Jason DeParle's American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare.

One of the debates in welfare reform has been about whether the welfare system created the social chaos that led many people to go on welfare in the first place. DeParle traces the families of three women who were single welfare moms in Milwaukee in the '90s back to the Mississippi plantation their ancestors came lived on a century ago. DeParle shows that the pattern of social disorganization of the "welfare plantation" was already well established on the sharecropping plantation, long before the great migration of black peasants to the northern cities and long before the invention of welfare. Women had children with temporary boyfriends, families moved often, the men were often violent and unreliable, and hard drinking was widespread. Moving north made things worse - the loose controls of extended family, country churches, and sheer social surveillance of the rural South broke down in the anonymous cities. But the basic pattern was already set.

This brings us to a central puzzle in the study of African-American family life. W.E.B. DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier, the fathers of black sociology in this country, thought the weak marriages and high out-of-wedlock birthrates among African Americans were a legacy of slavery, carried on with little change under Jim Crow. Herbert Gutman, by contrast, changed the debate when he argued that the black marriage rate was about the same as the white rate in the 1950s, so the subsequent black family breakdown must be due to recent causes. Indeed, it was from the leftist Gutman's argument that conservatives like Charles Murray would argue that welfare caused black family breakdown. Recently, though, James Q. Wilson and others have revisited Gutman's argument, returning to the more intuitively plausible DuBois/Frazier line that slavery had long-term destructive effects on black families.

DeParle is a journalist, using illustrative anecdotes to discuss the effects of social policy (welfare reform). He is not trying to settle the sociological argument about the long-term trajectory of African-American family structure. Still, I think DeParle's case shows strong support for the DuBois-to-J.Q.Wilson side of the argument.

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