It Takes More Than A Village, by Christopher Schrimpf

In her book It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton used that African proverb to argue that a community is most important for proper child development.  Downplaying the importance of the family is never sound advice, especially when a recent hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that strong families are a key factor increasing and accumulating wealth.

This finding comes as no surprise to conservatives.  And it would be wise for the African-Americans to bypass Hillary’s preferred proverb – despite its African origins – in favor of another mantra: Conservative values lead to wealth.

For example, there is a distinct difference between the earning and wealth potential of an intact, married black household as compared to households headed by single black women.  Professor Douglas Besharov of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Affairs pointed out that married families earned $66,525 on average in 2003, while black female-headed families earned just $20,670.

Professor Besharov testified: “Study after study has shown that black poverty would be much lower if family structures had not weakened beginning in the 1960s… [H]ad the proportion of children living in female-headed families remained constant since 1970, the child poverty rate in 1998 would have fallen by one percentage point, rather than rising by 3.4 percentage points.”

The child poverty rate in 1998 could have been 24 percent lower if not for the long-term degeneration of the American family.  Research shows the trend has an even more dramatic effect among black Americans.  Focusing on the effects of the weakening family structure of the African-American community, Besharov noted, “Had there been no changes in the family structure between 1960 and 1998, the black child poverty rate in 1998 would have been 28.4 percent rather than 45.6 percent.”

While civil rights gains led to an expected significant rise in black income levels in contrast to whites between 1959 and 1979, the pace of progress has slowed markedly since 1980.  Dr. Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, testifying about the problems faced by single-parent households, said: “Clearly, the growth of families with only one potential earner limits the ability of many black families today, and their children tomorrow, to join the middle class.”

Despite this bleak picture, there are clear policy prescriptions for increasing the wealth potential of black Americans.  Of paramount importance is increasing family stability.  At the very least, the number of two-income black families must increase.

What black America needs is an increasingly larger role to be played by fathers.  This can be achieved through a change in attitudes and policies to promote and preserve marriage as well as reform child support rules.  Dr. Holzer suggested, “These reforms, and perhaps some earnings supplementation for non-custodial fathers paying child support, could improve the attachment of low-income fathers to their children as well as to the labor market.”

The Civil Rights Commission’s hearing, while not a solution, was an important first step toward recognizing and correcting barriers to black wealth accumulation.  But it was only a first step.  Now the hard work must begin. 

While a village is not needed to raise our children the “village” of black activists – politicians, clergy, teachers, mentors and the like –  can help by spreading the word and promoting good values.  The black American family must return to the kind of strength seen prior to the Great Society programs of the 1960s.  With strengthened values comes the groundwork for wealth creation and prosperity.

Christopher Schrimpf is a research associate with the black leadership network Project 21.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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