Unintended Consequences

  • Blog Post by: Gary Cunningham
  • January 19, 2010 - 8:31 PM


It is fitting that I write this blog today on the birthday of a great leader and patriot Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Without Dr. Martin Luther King and many other unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, I would not have the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today. It is also clear to me that even in the face of the historic election of the first African-American President, Barack Obama, and the many other significant achievements of African-Americans; we have a long way to go before we reach Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community.
It was the day that my mother had me memorized Dr. King’s, “I Have A Dream” speech, which became a critical turning point in my life.  It was shortly after his death in 1968, I was about 10 years old, and I pledged to myself that I would work to make a difference for others.
Unintended Consequences
Are black fathers necessary? You know, I’m old and I’m tired, and there are just some things I just don’t want to debate anymore. One of them is whether African-American children need fathers. Another is whether marriage matters. You bet it does. Are fathers necessary? Damn straight we are."
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry, 1998
One of my vivid early childhood memories is of my mother looking out the window of our small house in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Outside, in the dead of winter, white men were standing around a backhoe digging up the street to turn off our gas main. That night my mother and her five children spent the coldest night of the year in the main room upstairs (which doubled as a bedroom I shared with my brother) under heavy blanks in front of a small electric space heater.
You see, in 1967, there was no cold weather rule prohibiting poor families’ gas from being shut off in the winter. If you couldn't pay your gas bill, your heat was turned off. No questions asked, no consideration of your situation, and no regard for whether you had children in the home or not. Our water pipes would freeze and eventually we would be evicted. We would move to another poor area of town and the pattern would begin again; maybe next time it would be the loss of our electricity or the inability to pay rent.
Clinging to the bottom of the safety net, the welfare check really never provided enough to support our family. We were always living on the edge. We survived with some support from my grandparents and other relatives, rummage sales for clothes and furniture, food stamps and free and reduced lunch at school.  
Growing up on welfare meant that we could expect a social worker to visit our home every month to make sure that there were no adult men living in the house. The social worker would walk through our house looking in closets and in drawers; nothing was off limits from her prying eyes. The social worker would then ask my mother and us kids questions to deduce if a adult man was or had been present and living in our house.
From 1935 to 1996, the national welfare policy, implemented through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, disqualified two-parent families from living together and receiving welfare benefits (“no adult men in the home” rule). This policy would have devastating and long-term unintended consequences for the plight of low-income African-American families for decades to come. In 1963, African-Americans had one of the highest marriage rates in the country: 70 percent. Today, African-American marriage rates are the lowest in the country:  approximately 43 percent of black men and 42 percent of black women in America have never been married. In the period between 1970 and 2001, the overall marriage rate in the United States declined by 17 percent; for blacks, it fell by 34 percent. African-American women are the least likely in our society to marry.[1]
Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson frames this issue as the lack of marriageable African-American males.[2] In many urban communities, the industrial jobs dried up in the late 60s and early 70s. A dream of a northern promised land for African-Americans would soon give way to the fact that America was moving from a producer to a consumer nation. The Rust Belt was beginning and the service economy was in ascendance.
With little hope of employment opportunities, many low-income African-American men were further marginalized, becoming invisible entities within their communities and their families. At the same time, due in part to hard fought civil rights legislation and to the riots that exploded across the low-income African American communities from 1968 through the early 1970s, a fledgling educated African-American middle class emerged who began moving out of low-income black communities into more affluent urban areas. The formations of a new African-American underclass and a new African-American middle class were emerging simultaneously out of a once united, yet segregated community.

[1] Joy Jones, 'Marriage Is for White People' Washington Post, Sunday Outlook- 26 March 2006.
[2] Wilson, William Julius. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, Random House p. 96.

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