Understanding Out-of-Wedlock Births in Black America

Revisiting the controversial Moynihan Report

I'm still making my way through some of the latest reconsiderations of the Moynihan Report. While doing that I've been thinking a lot about a number you see invoked whenever discussing the state of the black family--70 percent of all births among African-Americans happen out of wedlock. You often see this number invoked to show the moral or cultural decline in the black family:

For African-Americans. That's embarrassing. And you know, in the entire recorded history of the planet, there has never been a greater voluntary abandonment of men from their children than there is today in black America. Never. I mean, when men went off to war, they had to go off to war. That wasn't voluntary. But never as great of voluntary abandonment of children by their fathers than in black America today.

Or like this:

Why don't the NAACP and similar organizations take all the money they use to challenge and complain about the standards that their groups (in the aggregate) don't meet when it comes to university admissions, selective high-school admissions, school discipline, mortgage loans, police and firefighter tests, felon disenfranchisement laws, employment policies that look at criminal records, etc., etc., and use that money to figure out ways to bring down the illegitimacy rates that drive all these other disparities?

Just as often you see it invoked by black people themselves in much the same way. What undergirds all of this is the sense that the black community of today is somehow deficient in a way that the black community of yesteryear was not.

I think its very important to get past the jeremiads and understand why the numbers look the way they do. And given that this is an old beef of mine, I figured I'd go through the numbers again, fool around with some spreadsheets and try to get in touch with my inner Derek Thompson.

One obvious reason that you have a higher percentage of children born out of wedlock in the black community is that the number of unmarried women (mothers or not) has grown a lot, while number of married women has grown only a little. You can see that in the chart above, which I culled from these census numbers. The numbers are by the thousand. Rates.jpg

But while the number of unmarried black women has substantially grown, the actual birthrate (measured by births per 1000) for black women is it the lowest point that its ever documented.*

Birthrate for Black and White Unmarried Women.jpg.jpg

So while a larger number of black women are choosing not to marry, many of those women are also choosing not to bring kids into the world. But there is something else.

Birthrate for Married Women By Race.jpg

As you can see the drop in the birthrate for unmarried black women is mirrored by an even steeper drop among married black women. Indeed, whereas at one point married black women were having more kids than married white women, they are now having less.

I point this out to show that the idea that the idea that, somehow, the black community has fallen into a morass of cultural pathology is convenient nostalgia. There is nothing "immoral" or "pathological" about deciding not to marry. In the glorious black past, women who made that decision were more--not less--likely to become mothers. People who are truly concerned about the percentage of out of wedlock births would do well to hector married black women for moral duty to churn out babies in the manner of their glorious foremothers. But no one would do that. Because it would be absurd.

Theories of cultural decline are irrelevant. Policy not so much. Given the contact rates between the justice system and young black men, and given how that contact affects your employment prospects, the decision by many black women to not marry, and to have less children, strikes me as logical. If we want to change marriage rates, we need to change our policies. Nostalgia is magic. Policy is the hero.

*I had to call the CDC to get the numbers for married and unmarried. If anyone wants the data, ask in comments and I will get it to you.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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