When inner-city poverty pulls families apart

I live with my mother and my sister,'' says a 16-year-old girl. ``Where's your father?'' ``I don't know. Me and my sister got different fathers. My mother divorced my father when I was nine months old. I ain't seen him since.'' At the subway stop near Julia Richman High School in midtown Manhattan, a group of black teen-agers is waiting for the train back to Harlem. Asked about their families, each tells a similar story.

``I live with my mother and my four brothers,'' says a young man. ``We got two different fathers. My father is deceased. She's divorced from the other one. I lived with my father for a good while, though.''

``Did you like that?''

``Yeah. That's better. Especially for a boy. A boy feels better being with his father. There's certain things he can talk to his father about -- man to man.''

``My parents is not married,'' says another boy. ``But I live with both of them. I have one sister someplace, but I never seen her. I ain't been home in a while.'' he eyes his listener, apparently enjoying the shock value of his next remark. ``I been upstate in jail.''

``I live with my mother and my grandmother and my little brother,'' says a girl. ``My parents never married each other. I see my father once in a while.''

``What does your father do?''

``He never did tell us that. My mother got married to my stepfather but now they getting a divorce. My stepfather's very nice. My real father never did take time out for me.''

``I live with my mother,'' says another girl. ``I have three stepbrothers and a stepsister. My parents ain't never been married. I see my father every weekend. He lived with us when I was little, but my mother likes being by herself.''

``How about you? Do you plan to get married someday?''

``No, I don't want to get married. I don't like being with just that one person, obeying that person. I don't want no husband because of the way men are these days.''

``How are they?''

``They're hoodlums. They take a girl to the movies and expect everything from them. They roam the streets. They sell dope. They get a girl pregnant but they don't take care of the baby. I do want children, though -- I want two girls.''

In low-income black communities across the nation, it is not unusual to hear of fragmented families like these. Call up a Harlem mother on the phone: You may hear a man's angry shouting in the background. Stop a Harlem father pushing a stroller: You may be told that, while he spends time with his son each day, he and the child's mother don't live together and don't get along. Ask almost anyone you meet in Harlem whether they know any couples with intact marriages, and chances are the answer will be no. Mike, a 22-year-old who works downtown as a messenger, put it this way: ``Getting married is not in the style no more. It's more in style to be a playboy.''

Nannie Bookings lives in Washington. At 24, she is the mother of five children, fathered by two different men, neither of whom married her. The first man, she says, was ``not ready'' for marriage. When she describes what went wrong with the second, lack of communication emerges as the key.

``With that guy,'' says Nannie, ``I guess I was for show or something. That was the only time he needed me, when I was for show. There was no talking. He would watch TV or sleep. I was just there to take care of his kids and cook and whatever. As far as a talking relationship or anything like that -- we didn't have one.''

Despite these frustrations, Nannie wanted to make the relationship work.

``I want somebody I can trust. He knew it and he took advantage. He played around. I'm not for that. If I say I'll be your girlfriend, that's what I mean: be his. He can trust me fully. I was there for him and the children. I didn't feel trapped or nothing. I liked it. Everything was just fine till I started to need him. I'd get lonely or something, the kids'd be asleep and I'd have a couple of hours' free time. I'd want to sit and talk to him or something -- watch TV together, or sit on the front. He was never there for that. He could be home, but he'd be in his own little world.''

Nannie's situation is a common one. She could be almost anybody, anywhere.

Over the years, many single black women have successfully raised children -- sometimes many children -- and they have done so despite formidable obstacles. In the past, however, they were often aided by relatives and friends living in or near the home, who played an active role in helping to raise the children. But with black migrations to the cities, greater mobility, and the fragmentation that affects all segments of American society today, in many black communities the security and support of the extended family are largely things of the past.

Psychologists and social workers agree that women who are heads of households, and their dependent children, are more vulnerable to poverty than two-parent families. And their difficulties are not only financial. Children of single women usually receive less supervision than children with a father in the home, especially if the mother works. Analysts note that children, particularly boys, suffer from the lack of male role models in the home and in the community. Many single mothers complain of discipline problems, especially with teen-age boys. Some experts believe that children of single mothers are more prone to crime than children from two-parent families.

``The evidence suggests that the problems of absent fathers and juvenile crime tend to stay together,'' says Adam Walinsky, former chairman of the New York State Commission of Investigation.

``Though there haven't been any studies directly linking these two problems, there are a lot of studies linking absent fathers to early disciplinary problems and juvenile arrests. And it is certainly true that children from a disorganized home are more likely to get into trouble.''

The spotlight has been focused on the ``pathology'' of black families since Daniel Patrick Moynihan (now a Democratic Senator from New York) first wrote about them in these terms in 1965. But Senator Moynihan himself now concedes that the single-parent household is not only a black problem -- it is an American problem.

Such households not only breed poverty: They are often a result of poverty. Analysts agree that what some observers refer to as ``pathology'' -- a high proportion of female-headed households, a high rate of divorce and separation, a large number of out-of-wedlock births -- is primarily a function of economic conditions. Research has shown that when poverty increases in any community, regardless of its racial makeup, the number of intact families goes down.

``The reasons have to do with vulnerability,'' says Andrew Billingsley, a professor of sociology and Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland. ``People need an anchor in society -- a place that's secure, where they're valued. Black people have less of these things because of history and contemporary patterns of racism. Blacks also have fewer resources to turn to when change sweeps over them, less money and other supports. People who are vulnerable are swept away by these changes in family structure.''

The vulnerability of black single parents is often misinterpreted by outside observers. Black Americans are sometimes assumed to be immoral, irresponsible, and incapable of keeping their families together, when in fact it is the economic and social conditions in which they have lived that have undermined family stability.

Sociologists and psychologists agree that poor black men and women aspire to the ideal of the stable, monogamous family just as other Americans do. When poor blacks are unable to achieve this goal, it is usually because an essential ingredient for sustaining family life -- the opportunity to earn an adequate living -- is not available to them. Obviously, black men and women enter into relationships in the hope that they will last, just like everyone else. And among blacks, regardless of their family structure, children are valued above all.

``There's a tremendous drive among black people to nurture their children,'' Dr. Billingsley says. ``The family is very important. Blacks will take an inordinate amount of disrespect, they'll change their family structure, they'll do illegal things, they'll give their children to someone else -- whatever it takes to provide for their children. The welfare laws make a mockery of that legitimate longing for family and crush it. In half of the states the man has to leave in order for the woman to receive AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children], and a lot of the other states don't make it easy. It's not a family-oriented policy. In fact, it's an antifamily policy.''

Of course, many poor black families remain intact and healthy, despite difficulties. Typical is the McNeese family of South Los Angeles. James and Essie McNeese have been married for 27 years. They have 11 children.

Originally a tenant farmer in Mississippi, Mr. McNeese drove a truck until he was injured in an accident some years ago. His family has had to do without many times. But if anything, the bond between them has grown stronger with adversity.

McNeese knows that economic problems are a major cause of family dissolution in the black community. ``Financial problems have a lot to do with it,'' he says. ``I know at one time when our income was very, very low, my wife would be upset, and I would be upset. That keeps everybody tight and tense. Sometimes people just can't cope with it. You've got to be strong to live with that.''

McNeese says he believes that a good marriage needs to be carefully cultivated. And he sees communication and compromise as key ingredients.

``No one can be boss all the time. Most men don't want to `give' -- that's why their marriages don't last. Just because I'm the man, it doesn't mean I can't be wrong. We have to give a little, and most men don't want to. That's where the big problem lies.''

``I'm not going to say it was easy,'' he goes on. ``But why should I get rid of that lady and get another one? I'll be looking for the same thing in another lady. If I couldn't get along with the first one, ain't no use me trying a second one. Two, three marriages don't really make sense. If you've got one marriage, do everything in your power to make that one stick.''

The stability of the family is a major concern in the black community today, particularly among its churches. One national black organization committed to nurturing and strengthening families is Christian Research and Development, based in Philadelphia.

``We're convinced that the church is the institution that will have the most influence for good on the family,'' says Pastor Willie Richardson, founder and president of the organization.

``What we are doing is teaching people how to be married,'' says Mr. Richardson. ``What are the responsibilities of a husband, of a wife? We offer classes in communication, classes in domestic budgeting. Whenever you join a church that is implementing our family ministry you have to take these courses.''

Mr. Richardson's program of family ministry grew out of his 20 years of experience as a pastor counseling families.

Over the past 10 years, more than 1,000 black churches throughout the United States have been introduced to the program.

Of these, the pastors in 300 churches have given it top priority in their ministry. About 100 churches have organized men's groups in a program called Men's Discipleship Ministry.

``We break up the men into groups of six,'' Mr. Richardson says. ``These are support groups where the men build a friendship. But most important, they are in training, through counseling, in how to be better husbands and fathers. And each one makes a commitment to reach out to other men who don't attend church.''

``The groups meet once a week for one year,'' he says. ``After that, each one of the guys forms a group of his own.''

Mr. Richardson concedes that economic and educational problems put poor families at greatest risk. Yet he is convinced that, whatever the problem, people's lives improve when their spiritual needs are met.

``Spirituality brings a deeper commitment to preserving the family,'' he says. ``And it gets people away from selfishness. You learn how to work through your problems and come to a solution.''

-KRISTIN HELMORE HIGHLIGHTED STATISTICS: Of all Americans, poor blacks appear to bemost vulnerable to current trends of family dissolution. Only 28.6% of Harlem households have both a husband and wife in the home - the third lowest such percentage in the nation; SOURCE: Congressional District Fact Book.

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