Marriage: A social justice issue

Posted: Mar 27, 2006 12:06 AM

"Social justice" is often a moniker for government-sponsored redistribution of wealth. And race is often the hidden or not-so-hidden rationale for social justice.

Blacks are poorer than whites. Justice demands income equality, especially across the races. Therefore, government must transfer income and benefits from whites to blacks. End of story. The moral charge on racial income inequality is so great that anyone can apply this formula to just about any policy, even proposals that  don’t ultimately help blacks.

Oddly enough, the one great cultural issue that has tremendous impact on black America’s wealth is hardly ever approached in this way. This one policy area has the potential to increase black wealth, education and power. This major cultural course correction could reduce drug use, delinquency and violence, especially black on black crime. I am speaking of course, of marriage as a social justice issue. Yet, liberal elite opinion is strangely silent on the potentially revolutionary importance of marriage to the black community.

Marriage is a protective factor against social pathologies. Marriage generates and preserves wealth, unlike other family forms which dissipate wealth. A recent publication by the Boston-based Seymour Institute, "God’s Gift: A Christian Vision of Marriage and the Black Family", spells out the case for marriage as the most important next step for the future of black America. The report cites the fact that married families in the black community have twice as much income as unmarried black families.

The founder of the Seymour Institute for Advanced Christian Studies is the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers, III, the black Pentecostal minister whose work with poor urban youth has been widely celebrated. In the introduction to God’s Gift, Rev. Rivers states his case. "The impact of the decay of marriage among black people has been enormous, resulting in higher poverty rates among black families, school failure among children, and the intergenerational transmission of high teen pregnancy rates and female-headed households. Sociological research has implicated fatherlessness in violence, drug use and criminal behavior, especially among young black males."

To those who might argue that marriage is somehow alien to the black experience, linguist John McWhorter has an answer in the most recent issue of The American Enterprise. McWhorter observes that the high proportion of single parent families among blacks is a relatively new development, and not something that can be attributed to some amorphous "legacy of slavery."

"In poor black areas of Chicago during the 1920s, it was considered a problem that 15 percent of births were out of wedlock. Once the Depression hit, that number went down to under 10 percent. Women who had several children by different men were marginal types. And men at that time worked at jobs that immigrants have since filled."

McWhorter connects the dots between the changes in welfare rules of the 1960s and the changes in norms of sexual and family behavior at the same time. Both, in his view, were devastating.

"In New York City at this time, welfare commissioner Mitchell Ginsberg.... pushed caseworkers to recruit new recipients and abolished screening requirements like interviews and home inspections. Until 1961, national welfare rules assumed that wherever a father could be identified, he ought to be expected to provide support. Between 1961 and 1968 that was relaxed....

"Bureaucrats went courting recipients, unconcerned with when, or even whether, they became independent again. The nation’s welfare rolls exploded, jumping from 4.7 million to 9.7 million between 1966 and 1970 alone. .... Between 1964 and 1976, the number of black children born to single mothers doubled. By 1995, more than three quarters of black youngsters were born out of wedlock. ... And that badly injured the next generation. Among black children living with two parents, poverty rates plunged from 61% in 1959 to just 13% in 1995, marking incredible progress. By that time, most black families were no longer living below the poverty line. Yet that same year, the poverty rate among black kids being raised by single women was fully 62%."

So in the name of "social justice," meaning income transfer to blacks, marriage became marginalized within the black community. And this pushing marriage to the margins of black society had devastating consequences for the economic and social well-being of blacks.

Elite opinion that celebrates diverse family forms is actively destructive of social justice. Our culture glamorizes early sexual activity, unmarried sexual activity, and unmarried childbearing. But these cultural influences have very different implications for poorly educated, low-income women of color, than for the elite opinion-makers who graduate from exclusive universities.

Upper class people have created a norm of years of unmarried, sterile sex before settling down to marry and raise a couple of children. But as these ideas cascade down the socio-economic ladder, they produce unmarried sexual activity with quite different consequences. Women who don’t look forward to glamorous careers view motherhood as their primary goal. Early sexual activity for them means early and frequent child-bearing. Early child-bearing all too often means a lifetime of poverty for themselves and their children.

Young people are often the most idealistic and zealous proponents of new social movements. So, I offer this challenge especially to the young: if you want to do something to help the poor, quit idealizing unmarried sexual activity. Some sexual lifestyle decisions you can get away with. But those very same choices would be a disaster for the poor.

So I challenge college students and young adults to ask yourself this question when you are making your decisions about sex: If a high-school drop-out did this, would it be good for her or not?

If the answer is no, don’t do it! Or at least, have the decency to keep your mouth shut about social justice.

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