family, race, and poverty in the eighties

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  • Family, Race, and Poverty in the EightiesAuthor(s): Maxine Baca ZinnReviewed work(s):Source: Signs, Vol. 14, No. 4, Common Grounds and Crossroads: Race, Ethnicity, and Class inWomen's Lives (Summer, 1989), pp. 856-874Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: .Accessed: 28/03/2012 07:39

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    The 1960s Civil Rights movement overturned segregation laws, opened voting booths, created new job opportunities, and brought hope to Black Americans. As long as it could be said that conditions were improving, Black family structure and life-style remained private matters. The promises of the 1960s faded, however, as the income gap between whites and Blacks widened. Since the middle 1970s, the Black underclass has expanded rather than contracted, and along with this expansion emerged a public debate about the Black family. Two distinct models of the underclass now prevail- one that is cultural and one that is structural. Both of them focus on issues of family structure and poverty.

    The cultural deficiency model

    The 1980s ushered in a revival of old ideas about poverty, race, and family. Many theories and opinions about the urban underclass rest on the culture-of-poverty debate of the 1960s. In brief, proponents of the culture-of-poverty thesis contend that the poor have a different way of life than the rest of society and that these cultural differences explain continued poverty. Within the current national

    [Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1989, vol. 14, no. 4] ? 1989 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/89/1404-0099$01.00


  • Summer 1989/ SIGNS

    discussion are three distinct approaches that form the latest wave of deficiency theories.

    The first approach-culture as villain-places the cause of the swelling underclass in a value system characterized by low aspira- tions, excessive masculinity, and the acceptance of female-headed families as a way of life.

    The second approach-family as villain-assigns the cause of the growing underclass to the structure of the family. While unemployment is often addressed, this argument always returns to the causal connections between poverty and the disintegration of traditional family structure.

    The third approach-welfare as villain-treats welfare and an- tipoverty programs as the cause of illegitimate births, female-headed families, and low motivation to work. In short, welfare transfer pay- ments to the poor create disincentives to work and incentives to have children out of wedlock-a self-defeating trap of poverty.

    Culture as villain

    Public discussions of urban poverty have made the "disintegrating" Black family the force most responsible for the growth of the underclass. This category, by definition poor, is overwhelmingly Black and disproportionately composed of female-headed house- holds. The members are perceived as different from striving, upwardly mobile whites. The rising number of people in the underclass has provided the catalyst for reporters' and scholars' attention to this disadvantaged category. The typical interpretation given by these social commentators is that the underclass is permanent, being locked in by its own unique but maladaptive culture. This thinking, though flawed, provides the popular ratio- nale for treating the poor as the problem.

    The logic of the culture-of-poverty argument is that poor people have distinctive values, aspirations, and psychological characteris- tics that inhibit their achievement and produce behavioral deficien- cies likely to keep them poor not only within generations but also across generations, through socialization of the young.' In this argument, poverty is more a function of thought processes than of physical environment.2 As a result of this logic, current discussions

    Mary Corcoran, Greg J. Duncan, Gerald Gurin, and Patricia Gurin, "Myth and Reality: The Causes and Persistence of Poverty," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 4, no. 4 (1985): 516-36.

    2 Mary Corcoran, Greg J. Duncan, and Martha S. Hill, "The Economic Fortunes of Women and Children: Lessons fiom the Panel Study of Income Dynamics," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 10, no. 2 (Winter 1984): 232-48.



    of ghetto poverty, family structure, welfare, unemployment, and out-of-wedlock births connect these conditions in ways similar to the 1965 Moynihan Report.3 Because Moynihan maintained that the pathological problem within Black ghettos was the deterioration of the Negro family, his report became the generative example of blaming the victim.4 Furthermore, Moynihan dismissed racism as a salient force in the perpetuation of poverty by arguing that the tangle of pathology was "capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world."'

    The reaction of scholars to Moynihan's cultural-deficiency model was swift and extensive although not as well publicized as the model itself. Research in the sixties and seventies by Andrew Billingsley, Robert Hill, Herbert Gutman, Joyce Ladner, Elliot Leibow, and Carol Stack, to name a few, documented the many strengths of Black families, strengths that allowed them to survive slavery, the enclosures of the South, and the depression of the North.6 Such work revealed that many patterns of family life were not created by a deficient culture but were instead "a rational adaptational response to conditions of deprivation.

    A rapidly growing literature in the eighties documents the disproportionate representation of Black female-headed families in poverty. Yet, recent studies on Black female-headed families are largely unconcerned with questions about adaptation. Rather, they study the strong association between female-headed families and poverty, the effects of family disorganization on children, the demographic and socioeconomic factors that are correlated with single-parent status, and the connection between the economic

    3 Daniel P. Moynihan, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," in The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, ed. L. Rainwater and W. L. Yancy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1967), 39-132.

    4 Margaret Cerullo and Marla Erlien, "Beyond the 'Normal Family': A Cultural Critique of Women's Poverty," in For Crying Out Loud, ed. Rochelle Lefkowitz and Ann Withorn (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1986), 246-60.

    5 Moynihan, 47. 6 Leith Mullings, "Anthropological Perspectives on the Afro-American Family,"

    American Journal of Social Psychiatry 6, no. 1 (Winter 1986): 11-16; see the following revisionist works on the Black family: Andrew Billingsley, Black Families in White America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968); Robert Hill, The Strengths of Black Families (New York: Emerson-Hall, 1972); Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (New York: Pantheon, 1976); Joyce Ladner, Tomorrow's Tomorrow: The Black Woman (New York: Doubleday, 1971); Elliot Leibow, Talley's Corner: A Study of Negro Street Corner Men (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967); Carol Stack, All Our Kin (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

    William J. Wilson and Robert Aponte, "Urban Poverty," Annual Review of Sociology 11 (1985): 231-58, esp. 241.


  • Summer 1989 / SIGNS

    status of men and the rise in Black female-headed families.8 While most of these studies do not advance a social-pathology explana- tion, they do signal a regressive shift in analytic focus. Many well-meaning academics who intend to call attention to the dan- gerously high level of poverty in Black female-headed households have begun to emphasize the family structure and the Black ghetto way of life as contributors to the perpetuation of the underclass.

    The popular press, on the other hand, openly and enthusiasti- cally embraced the Moynihan thesis both in its original version and in Moynihan's restatement of the thesis in his book Family and Nation.9 Here Moynihan repeats his assertion that poverty and family structure are associated, but now he contends that the association holds for Blacks and whites alike. This modification does not critique his earlier assumptions; indeed, it validates them. A profoundly disturbing example of this is revealed in the widely publicized television documentary, CBS Reports' "The Vanishing Family.""' According to this refurbished version of the old Moynihan Report, a breakdown in family values has allowed Black men to renounce their traditional breadwinner role, leaving Black women to bear the economic responsibility for children." The argument that the Black community is devastating itself fits neatly with the resurgent conservatism that is manifested among Black and white intellectuals and policymakers.

    Another contemporary example of the use of the culture of poverty is Nicholas Lemann's two-part 1986 Atlantic Monthly article about the Black underclass in Chicago.12 According to Lemann, family structure is the most visible manifestation of Black America's bifurcation into a middle class that has escaped the ghet