an American nightmare

April 12th, 2009

(learn more about the book at the “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit)

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.

The emergence of the modern Welfare State in particular is blamed as the single most detrimental force on 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 American government expenditures on the welfare funding sent to families and children starting in 1962 and then into the next few decades. That’s the year the Public Welfare Amendments were passed, which specifically increased aid to dependent children.

And yet that’s not what happened at all:

Seems a bit odd, there’s a distinct spike – but it starts in the early ’70s not the early ’60s. Neither population growth nor total welfare spending explain this spike, both grew at a relatively flat linear rate during this time period. Did it just take a full decade for black women to finally realize that all they had to do was pop out a few babies, marriage be damned, and they could just 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:

If the War on Drugs didn’t directly precipitate the Welfare State and the destruction of the American black family, why did welfare aid to families spike in lockstep with our prison population right as that War started? Well, if you’re familiar 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.

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 modern Welfare State emerged in tandem with our War on Drugs, as it’s a little bit difficult to marry someone behind bars:

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%

And it’s not at all difficult to see how the reduction in marriageable males affected the rate of black marriages in America. 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 War on Drugs raged, that proportional decline 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%)

We’ve certainly come a long way as a nation since Abolition, but the horrible reality is that a black child who was born during slavery was more likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during the twenty-first century. As Fredrick Douglass explained, during slavery it was common practice to separate children born into slavery from their birth-mothers before their first birthday. Which makes perfect sense when you consider that under slavery blacks were human chattel, and separating newborns calves from their mothers is just what you do with livestock.

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