Rapper Kanye West used the megaphone that is Saturday Night Live last weekend to repeat the ancient myth that the Democratic Party and their welfare policies decimated the black family.
Said West: “The blacks want always Democrats… you know it’s like the plan they did, to take the fathers out the home and put them on welfare… does anybody know about that? That’s a Democratic plan.”
For decades, conservatives have dined out on a version of this falsehood, that government assistance was to blame for high rates of out-of-wedlock births among black women from the 1960s until today. The myth gives conservatives a convenient moral defense when they seek to slash funding for Meals on Wheels.
But the fact is there was never a time when conservatives were okay with government aid to the poor. Centuries before there were government handouts like AFDC and WIC, Christendom had a schizophrenic relationship with alms-giving. The Bible seems to demand charity (“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done” Proverbs 19:17), while, Christians, especially Protestants, have long seen charity as promoting idleness.
The compromise conservatives have worked out amongst themselves has been to donate to their local Christian food pantry and then vote to slash funding for government’s infant milk program.
Conservatives are not bothered by those cuts, because the evidence shows that welfare harms the poor spiritually, morally and economically. At least a cursory view of the evidence shows that. And, historically speaking, there does seem to be a correlation between a rise in TANF or AFDC recipients and out-of-wedlock births. More telling for conservatives is that around the same time the Clinton Administration passed welfare reform, out-of-wedlock births leveled off. That correlation has always been all the proof conservatives need to oppose more generous welfare benefits.
Since it was the liberal democrats who have traditionally championed welfare programs, conservatives were right to blame democrats for the disastrous effects of those programs on the black family. So Kanye is right.
Not exactly. In the 1960s, republicans, dixiecrats and radical southern conservative democrats (who were far more conservative than northern republicans) came up with the strategy that would ultimately break up poor black families by refusing to sign on to any welfare legislation that did not include a “No Man in the House” rule. Southern conservatives preferred to “take the fathers out of the home” rather than allow abled-bodied black men and their families to receive government assistance.
Many of these black fathers were indeed able bodied. They were also poorly educated, and their unskilled factory and agricultural jobs had disappeared due to mechanization and outsourcing. They were likewise victims of discriminatory hiring practices and Jim Crow laws that kept black men from accessing the GI Bill and attending college, as well as union policies that kept black men from joining labor unions.
Wrote Glenn McNutt in 1992: “So if a man lost his job, he literally had to leave home if he wanted his children to be eligible for government surplus cheese, beans and peanut butter. Somehow conservatives persuaded themselves that this encouraged ‘family values.’…Conservatives like to talk about the ‘law of unintended consequences’….Welfare hasn’t worked, they argue, because it only produces more dependency. Yet dependency clearly is a function of the great increase in single-parent, female-headed households over the last 20 years. And that, in turn, was at least in part an unintended consequence of punitive welfare rules that forced poor men to chose between abandoning their children or watching them starve.”
When the government began keeping birth statistics in 1940, African American rates of out-of-wedlock births stood about 16 percentage points higher than whites. This was a period when, due to discriminatory policies — particularly in the south — blacks received almost no “welfare.” So whatever explains this 16-point difference it almost certainly has nothing to do with welfare.
Out-of-wedlock births for all races began trending up in the 1950s, and picked up steam in the sixties, especially for blacks, due in part to “No Man in the House Rules” and to the continued decline in unskilled jobs for poor black men.
By the mid-90s, out-of-wedlock births leveled off. Conservatives attribute this solely to the miracle of welfare reform. An yet if we are talking about the health of the black family, welfare reform has spurred no subsequent rise in black marriage rates. In fact, Black women are less likely to marry today than they were at the time of welfare reform and that trend continues today. Nor has there been the predicted drop in out-of-wedlock births following welfare reform. Rates have remained constant.
The more likely reason out-of-wedlock births leveled off in the 1990s is that blacks were finally beginning to share (at least a little) in the American dream with record numbers of blacks achieving a working class and middle class status. From 1990 to 2000, black median household income shot up an unprecedented $10,000. Blacks (especially black women) were graduating high school and going to college in unprecedented numbers. The number of blacks getting bachelor degrees nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000. Higher education, as we know, is correlated to fewer out-of-wedlock births. Last, but not least in importance, blacks were finally able to leave the urban ghettos and move into areas with better schools and less crime.
Kanye West was half right. It was largely Democrats — racist southern conservative Democrats and Dixiecrats — who “took the father out of the home.” But to blame today’s decidedly non-southern democratic party for those Jim Crow-era policies shows a sad and profound lack of historical knowledge.