Post-Marital Families

May 27, 1991

Twenty-six years ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Labor Department official in the Johnson administration, reported that a crisis in the black family was creating a split between ''a stable middle-class group that is steadily growing stronger and more successful, and an increasingly disorganized and disadvantaged lower-class group.'' The conclusions were controversial at the time, but Census figures over the years document the family crisis. In 1965, over 70 percent of black families included a married couple; a new Census report shows that in 1990 married couples made up just half of all black families.

The consequences for raising children are obvious. Children with divorced or separated parents are twice as likely to live in poverty as those with two parents. For black married-couple families the 1989 median income was $30,650; for ''female householder'' black families it was $11,360.

The same Census report shows married-couple households for all racial and ethnic groups declining steadily from 87 percent in 1970 to 79 percent last year. The pressures of racism may explain why blacks are more vulnerable than other groups to family breakdown, but clearly the ''post-marital family,'' as Senator Moynihan has called it, increasingly affects all Americans.

It is also a political football. Conservatives say government programs undermine families by discouraging individual responsibility; liberals counter that government programs have been insufficient to shield families from the dislocations of urban and industrial society. These perspectives underlay competing ''pro-family'' legislative remedies in last year's Congress. Republicans proposed a voucher plan that would reimburse parents for the private choices they made in securing child care. Democrats enacted a program to underwrite a network of federally regulated day-care centers.

Both approaches may be treating the symptoms rather than the causes of family deterioration. Women have moved into broader economic participation in society. The role of men also has changed. Thus, the structure of the American family has been under stress, as is shown by Census figures, with all the social problems of lawlessness, teen-age pregnancy, drugs and poverty.

When husbands and wives insist on personal sovereignty, unhindered by the claims of other individuals or of society, collective institutions like the family often will not work satisfactorily. Legislation can help broken families cope with their lives, but America will have strong families again only when society -- and the individuals who compose it -- learns to understand and to check the excesses of selfishness.

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