COLUMN LEFT/ ELAINE CIULLA KAMARCK : Fatherless Families: a Violent Link : There are many black role models, but without fathers young men face high odds.
To engage in laying blame for the creation of a violent urban underclass--a temptation to which President Bush and some Democrats have succumbed--is to rehash the tried-and-true foolishness of the left and right, where liberals blame Ronald Reagan and the military-industrial complex and conservatives blame Lyndon Johnson and the welfare state. We need to focus on a third way, and at the center we will find a consensus shared by blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives on the importance of family to stable communities.
When her son gets in trouble at school, the mother of the hero of the movie “Boyz N the Hood” packs him off to live with his father. At first it seems like a pretty cold thing to do, but as the movie unfolds it turns out to be a brave act of love. Her son, unlike many of his friends, makes it out of the Los Angeles ghetto and into college; a function, in large part, of the love and guidance of a strong and protective father.
In spite of the fact that young black men in South Los Angeles today have many more role models in the larger society than did the young black men who rioted nearly 30 years ago, large numbers of them still don’t have fathers. We know from brutal experience that high proportions of fatherless children in a community means violence.
The importance of fathers was very much on Bill Clinton’s mind when he addressed the Democratic Leadership Council on the weekend of the Los Angeles riots. Clinton began by complimenting Earl Taylor, a black vocalist who had opened the session, on the accomplishments of his two sons--"Testament to the enduring importance of a father’s love,” Clinton said. He then wove a speech around the need to “reconnect” the lost youth to the greater society--not via government programs but via family. “Governments don’t raise children, people do,” he said.
Wayne Bryant is a black state legislator in New Jersey and the author of one of the country’s most comprehensive welfare reform bills. “What does a young man know about being a man?” Bryant asks. “Is it sneaking in and out? Is it not really taking a stand on issues that are important to the family?”
At the center of Bryant’s bill is an emphasis on reconstructing the poor black family. His bill is controversial among white liberals but not among the blacks he represents in Camden.
Jack Kemp’s empowerment strategy has also won converts among black Americans. By shifting power in poor communities from social workers to the poor, meaningful roles are created for everyone. Kemp, the housing secretary, noted that the three public-housing projects in the riot area of Los Angeles that were managed by tenants were free from violence.
Thirty years ago, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) warned that communities where large numbers of young men grew up without fathers have historically been plagued by a high degree of violence. Seldom does society pay such a high cost for ignoring the warnings of one man. The absence of the father is so strongly related to the propensity to engage in violent criminal behavior that a 1988 study of 57 neighborhoods found that father-absence was far more important than either race or poverty in predicting high levels of violent crime.
In a groundbreaking study on juvenile delinquency published in 1969, Travis Hirschi asked not why men break the law, but why they obey it? People obey rules to the extent that they form a bond to society and the first bond is, of course, the family. Children with close bonds to mother and father (even when the father held a poor or low-status job) were less likely to become criminals.
All available evidence indicates that in the first part of the century the majority of black children, like the majority of white children, lived in families with mothers and fathers. By the 1980s, however, the number of fatherless families in the black community far exceeded the number in the white community. On this page Wednesday, sociologist William Julius Wilson, author of “The Truly Disadvantaged,” blamed economic trends that led to high joblessness among black men; I agree. Conservative scholar Charles Murray, author of “Losing Ground,” blames it on the welfare state; I disagree.
But at this point even academic blame is a game. We are in the midst of a vicious cycle: Men without good jobs never have and never will form stable families; young men without fathers suffer many obstacles to turning into the sort of men who get good jobs. It’s time to end the cycle.