The horrific, execution-style killing of three teens in Newark last weekend has sparked widespread outrage and promises of reform from politicians, religious leaders, and community activists, who are pledging a renewed campaign against the violence that plagues New Jersey’s largest city. But much of the reaction, though well-intentioned, misses the point. Behind Newark’s persistent violence and deep social dysfunction is a profound cultural shift that has left many of the city’s children growing up outside the two-parent family—and in particular, growing up without fathers. Decades of research tell us that such children are far likelier to fail in school and work and to fall into violence than those raised in two-parent families. In Newark, we are seeing what happens to a community when the traditional family comes close to disappearing.Malanga might have added that the break-up of the traditional family structure - especially the structure of the black American family - has been a focal point of social welfare policy analysis for more than forty years. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his landmark study, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" (1965), quotes E. Franklin Frazier to summarize his case on the "tangle of pathologies" arising from black family disintegration:
According to 2005 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 32 percent of Newark children are being raised by their parents in a two-adult household. The rest are distributed among families led by grandparents, foster parents, and single parents—mostly mothers. An astonishing 60 percent of the city’s kids are growing up without fathers. It isn’t that traditional families are breaking up; they aren’t even getting started. The city has one of the highest out-of-wedlock birthrates in the country, with about 65 percent of its children born to unmarried women. And 70 percent of those births are to women who are already poor, meaning that their kids are born directly into poverty.
The economic consequences of these numbers are unsettling, since single parenthood is a road to lasting poverty in America today. In Newark, single parents head 83 percent of all families living below the poverty line. If you are a child born into a single-parent family in Newark, your chances of winding up in poverty are better than one in five, but if you are born into a two-parent family, those chances drop to just one in twelve.
And the social consequences are even more disturbing. Research conducted in the 1990s found that a child born out of wedlock was three times more likely to drop out of school than the average child, and far more likely to wind up on welfare as an adult. Studies have also found that about 70 percent of the long-term prisoners in our jails, those who have committed the most violent crimes, grew up without fathers.
The starkness of these statistics makes it astonishing that our politicians and policy makers ignore the subject of single parenthood, as if it were outside the realm of civic discourse. And our religious leaders, who once preached against such behavior, now also largely avoid the issue, even as they call for prayer vigils and organize stop-the-violence campaigns in Newark. Often, in this void, the only information that our teens and young adults get on the subject of marriage, children, and family life comes through media reports about the lifestyles of our celebrity entertainers and athletes, who have increasingly shunned matrimony and traditional families. Once, such news might have been considered scandalous; today, it is reported matter-of-factly, as if these pop icons’ lives were the norm.
As the result of family disorganization a large proportion of Negro children and youth have not undergone the socialization which only the family can provide. The disorganized families have failed to provide for their emotional needs and have not provided the discipline and habits which are necessary for personality development. Because the disorganized family has failed in its function as a socializing agency, it has handicapped the children in their relations to the institutions in the community. Moreover, family disorganization has been partially responsible for a large amount of juvenile delinquency and adult crime among Negroes. Since widespread family disorganization among Negroes has resulted from the failure of the father to play the role in the family required by American society, the mitigation of this problem must await those changes in the Negro and American society which will enable the Negro father to play the role required of him.Frazier's quotation is from 1950. Things had not improved for the black family by the time Moynihan wrote his analysis for the Lyndon Johnson administration fifteen years later. The "Moynihan Report" generated a tremendous backlash in the black community, as it was seen as "blaming the victim," obviously not a popular reform avenue at a time when the civil rights redistributive regime was kicking into high gear. This is why single parenthood remains out of mainstream reform discourse: It's politically incorrect to focus on individual-level pathologies as the source of personal and social disorganization. Rather, structures and institutions must change - rights activists will argue - for there to be real progress toward equal opportunity and mobility.
There's something else important to note coming out of the Newark murders. I was in New York on the weekend of the killings, and this story from the New York Times mentions the phenomenon of witness intimidation in the black community as it relates to the Newark case:
Some residents told detectives that they saw a group of men running from the school just after hearing the shots, but no one saw their faces or knew exactly how many there were....The story notes that the fourth victim, Natasha Ariel, may be the key source of evidence for the prosecutor's office. As of Thursday, Ms. Ariel had identified a suspect from a photo lineup, although Ms. Dow is waiting to get a taped statement before proceeding further in the case.
Witness intimidation and fear of retaliation has stymied law enforcement efforts to combat violence in communities across Essex County, and particularly in Newark, where drug trading and gangs fuel most of the crimes. Ms. [Essex County prosecutor, Paula T.] Dow’s office has been reluctant to file murder charges in cases with single eyewitnesses because so many of those cases have fallen apart.
I've blogged about witness intimidation here. The phenomenon represents an advanced condition of the breakdown of the black community structure. Black urban culture has deteriorated to the point where upstanding families - facing extreme threats to their safety - have little recourse but to let urban thugs take over entire neighborhoods. As long as these pathologies continue - and until black culture shifts toward privileging citizenship and responsibility over social neglect and chaos - there can be little hope for the success of more forceful public policies, at least for those social welfare approaches falling outside of aggressive anti-crime initiatives.