As our financial crisis deepens and the schisms between the haves and the have-nots continue to open, American drug laws and the prison system they’ve perpetuated are beginning to gather an increasingly harsh spotlight. But so what. It’s not like the War on Drugs, which started almost forty-years ago in 1973, has done anything to increase the growing level of economic disparity in America… right?
A lot happened in 1973.
It was a few years after Nixon slammed the gold window shut, the waning hours of a decapitated Civil Rights movement, and the year we began to disentangle ourselves from Vietnam. But it also marks the genesis of the War on Drugs: the year the Rockefeller Drug Laws were passed. And that same year something funny happened: the income gap between black and white began to widen back out, instead of closing – as it had been up until 1973.
Did the start of the War on Drugs play a significant role in creating our present economic and social realities – where the average black family has eight-cents of wealth for every dollar owned by whites, and a black child is nine-times more likely than a white child to have a parent in prison?
Not having both parents around can be directly linked to any number of issues, in fifty-years of international studies of over 10,000 subjects, researchers haven’t been able to find “any other class of experience that has as strong and consistent effect on personality and personality development as does the experience of [parental] rejection… children who were often rejected by their parents tend to feel more anxious and insecure, as well as more hostile and aggressive toward others. ” And surprisingly enough, the study showed that fatherly affection, or lack thereof, may shape our personality even more than attention from our mothers.
Just how damaging is it for a child to grow up in a fatherless home? Well, they produce: 71% of our high school drop-outs, 85% of the kids with behavioral disorders, 90% of our homeless and runaway children, 75% of the adolescents in drug abuse programs, and a striking majority in one final category. Out of all the kids in our juvenile detention facilities, 85% of them come from fatherless homes.
If your Dad’s in prison there’s an extraordinary high chance that you too will someday end up behind bars, creating a cycle of absence that has been perpetuating for two-generations within the African-American community.
And yet everyone from Bill Cosby to Ronald Reagan seems fond of placing the blame for our black community’s fate squarely on the shoulders of African-Americans, largely excusing the rest of America from any blame for their plight and refusing to consider that - just maybe - other factors might have come into play at some point during our shared history.
For the most part, the emergence of the modern Welfare State in particular has been singled-out as the single most detrimental force within our African-American community, since it supposedly allowed “welfare queens” with “80 names, 30 addresses, and 12 Social security cards” to pull in over $150,000 of tax-free income a year. As the argument goes, the Public Welfare Amendments of 1962 created a system that disincentived marriage by rewarding single mothers with loads of free cash.
All they had to do was remain out of wedlock, and the checks would just keep on rolling in.
This view was popularized by a Nobel Prize winning physicist, William Shockley, who argued that these programs “tended to encourage childbirth, especially among less productive members of society (particularly blacks, whom he considered to be genetically inferior to whites), causing a reverse evolution.” Shockley popularized this hypothesis, bringing it to both Congress and the public, and even put forth a proposal offering financial rewards to minorities if they were voluntary sterilized.
So assuming that the Welfare State was created by black mothers who had no intent to ever marry, and willfully popped out babies to get paid, we’d expect to see a steady even rise in the rate of single black mothers starting right around 1962, when the Public Welfare Amendments were passed. And yet Welfare didn’t have anything to do with the destruction of the black family, it would take a decade for a different phenomenon to emerge and remove black fathers from the picture entirely and create the familial reality that African-Americans have lived in for the past two generations.
In the decade prior to the start of the War on Drugs, the first decade of the Public Welfare Amendments, the percentage of married African-American women roughly followed the national trend and declined proportionally by less than 6% – but then in the ’70s, as the national average rate remained stable, the proportional decline for African-American women tripled to nearly 18%:
(66.3 – 62.6 = 3.7% | 3.7 / 66.3 = 5.5% and 62.6 – 51.5 = 11.1% | 11.1 / 62.6 = 17.7%)
Seems a bit odd. Did it just take a full decade for black women to finally realize that all they had to do was pop out a baby or seven, marriage be damned, and they could start rolling in the dough? Or maybe something else happened that created a dearth of African-American men who were available to actually marry?
In 1971 President Nixon officially began the War on Drugs, which fully hit its stride in ’73 with the passage of the draconian Rockefeller Drugs Laws, and very quickly a distinct trend in the American prison population emerged:
And how would this spike affect the marriage rates of black folks? Well, if you’re familiar with American drug laws, it shouldn’t surprise you that some 90% of those arrested under the Rockefeller Drug Laws in the years after its passage were minorities. This baseline source of our prison population has persisted up until today, when over half of those in federal prison are serving time for a drug offense.
The explanation is not that blacks simply use drugs at a higher rate than whites. If anything, studies have shown that whites,“particularly white youths, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.” Surveys published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse reported that compared to black students: white students were seven times as likely to use cocaine, eight times as likely to use crack cocaine, seven times as likely to use heroin, and were 33% more likely to have sold illegal drugs.
Sure, correlation doesn’t prove causation – but when you stop a moment and consider that marriage requires an eligible male, it’s not that hard to figure out why the black family begin to disintegrate just as our War on Drugs began, as it’s a little bit difficult to marry someone behind bars. And just how many African-American males were sent behind bars in the decades following the start of the War on Drugs?
A black male born in 1974 had a 13.4% chance of going to prison at some point in his life, while a white male had just a 2.2% chance. And it’s not like this trend got any better, by 1991 the odds a black male would spend time in prison had ballooned to 29%, while the odds a white male would end up in the clink had only increased to 4.4%
So it’s not all that difficult to see how the reduction in marriageable males effectively gutted African-American families. What’s also perfectly clear is how the growth of the American Prison State affected government welfare expenditures, and led directly to the emergence of our Modern Welfare State.
Welfare spending on families and children also witnesses a distinct spike during these same years – but it starts in the early ’70s not the early ’60s when the Public Welfare Amendments were first passed. Neither population growth nor total welfare spending explain this spike, both grew at a relatively flat linear rate during this time period.
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