I had been on the phone for two hours with Social Security. I spoke to multiple different people, answered the same questions dozens of times, and was once again on hold waiting for someone to help. Our office manager at the church brought a chair for my friend, Anthony, as he was tired of standing. He was staring at the wall. He was afraid and ashamed. I didn’t know how to help him, but I was trying my best.
He had been in my office many times before looking for help. Sometimes I gave him some money, and other times I took him out to lunch, to the grocery store, or to the pharmacy. One day, he came into my office with light pants and only a thin windbreaker jacket on one of the coldest days of the year. He was sleeping outside. They didn’t let him stay at the shelter anymore, and even on these days where the city declared a weather emergency, he often did not go. I went home and brought back to him a jacket, a winter hat, some gloves, and a blanket. He was thrilled. I felt good, like I had done something right and these small victories were becoming rare. When he returned a few days later, the jacket, the hat, the gloves – they were all gone. Anthony sold them. He told me later that he spent the money on drugs and a prostitute. I wasn’t mad. I felt helpless. Both of us were helpless in the face of his problems.
On this particular day, Anthony needed to call Social Security to have his payee changed, but he wasn’t able to do so himself. Social Security did not pay him directly, but instead paid a second person as he was deemed unable to properly manage his own finances. His payee did not want to do it anymore. I asked a lot of questions, and thought I could help by talking to his payee directly to see if we could resolve the situation. I was a pastor. The payee would listen to a pastor, right?
Anthony gave me the number. I called. It was the number of a church in Baltimore. His payee turned out to be his brother who was the pastor of the church. The receptionist told me that the pastor didn’t want to speak to me. He didn’t want anything to do with his brother anymore. He had tried, for years. He just couldn’t do it. I told my friend. He wasn’t surprised, but he was ashamed. I felt guilty for even calling.
He didn’t have anyone else to turn to. His brother didn’t want to help him. His father lived too far away and, Anthony thought he was too old to help.. He didn’t have any friends. He had been in and out of jail and had become separated from anyone who would have otherwise chosen to help him. His continued abuse of drugs permanently damaged his brain which was obvious to anyone who spoke more than a few words to him and had left him unable to live as a fully-functioning, independent member of society. Anthony knew things that I did not though. He knew how to survive on the streets. He knew where to go for money, clothes, food, or medical care. He knew how to get out of a fight, and how to survive one. He knew how to work the system, even if he could not do it himself. He had worked me, so there I was on the phone with Social Security, trying to do it for him.
I realized something then, that has stuck with me since. While navigating my way through social security options on the phone alongside a man who I was called to love and serve, I realized I would never be poor. The situation in which he found himself could never happen to me. My wife would never give up on me. Never. My parents would never give up on me. Never. My brothers would never give up on me. Never. And I had a few close friends, who I can honestly say would never give up on me. Never. I lived in a country that, despite its faults, grants me opportunity and a minimum level of assistance. I had a great education, no debt, and money in savings. While I didn’t have a large income, and while I probably never would, I was rich, not because I had a ton of money – I didn’t – but because I had access to enormous resources through my ties to family and friends, some of whom were rich. I could make a thousand poor choices, and I would never find myself in a church office asking someone 30 years my junior to help navigate social security disability because no one else would help me. It would never happen. And my character and my intelligence had absolutely nothing to do with it.
The church may teach me to be in solidarity with the poor, and it may teach me to sell everything I have and follow Jesus, and it may even teach me to enact those things in an extreme and literal way. But even if I did so, I still would never be poor. I would never be one of them. Doors would always be open to me. I would always have someone and something on which to fall back. The extreme voices from the radical Christians were, to me, clearly over-reaching or had failed to recognize the massive divide that often separates themselves from the truly poor, both domestic and abroad. And far too many other people had ignored the voice of my friend who sat in front of me abandoned by friends and family with only me to help him. His sins were not beyond forgiveness, and I refused to believe that the forgiveness of sin is merely limited to some spiritual realm, somewhere else where we cannot see. “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the Kingdom of God…Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” says Jesus on the plain. Not yet, Jesus. Not yet.
After many hours on the phone, social security decided they couldn’t help me. Anthony’s payee could not be changed. I didn’t know what to do and the voice on the other end of the phone said they could help me no longer. I apologized to my friend. He left. It ended up taking my entire day. There were no small wins that day, just yet another in a long line of realizations that the world around me was broken and I had no power to fix it.
In the wake of protests and political action from those who identify with “Black Lives Matter”, there has been a strong, yet uneven, response from those who oppose them. conservatives, mostly white, have responded with statements like “All Lives Matter”1 and even labeling the entire decentralized movement as “troublemakers”, “thugs”, or even “terrorists”. Some of the opposition has been plainly ridiculous, especially so as those opposing “Black Lives Matter” have called its supporters to denounce the violent actions of an extreme minority of those who have identified with the movement while themselves failing to denounce those who label BLM as “terrorists” and failing to denounce the unequal treatment that minorities receive in the justice system. This inequity reveals the main opposition to BLM as primarily interested in political posturing rather than honest criticism or dialogue.
But rather than focus on the inadequate, and self-defeating arguments of BLM’s opposition, I’m far more interested in substantive opposition to the movement. Right now, in conservative circles anyway, counter-arguments and counter-narratives are being formulated to oppose Black Lives Matter. As BLM has focused on police violence against black people and institutional racism in police departments, the justice system, and society at large, conservatives are deciding to respond by saying that cultural issues, exacerbated by Democratic policies, are at the core of problems facing black Americans rather than a historic link to slavery, legal discrimination, or institutionalized racism. These arguments should be taken seriously and all opposition, regardless of its side, should not be singularly dismissed. There is no better time than during intense, protracted disagreement to approach our opposition’s arguments sympathetically and if we end up opposing them, to do so rigorously.
One of the most common substantive arguments from conservatives who oppose BLM, is that police violence, crime, and poverty can be primarily linked to a single cultural problem in America which is especially pronounced among black Americans: the breakdown of the nuclear family. This narrative is particularly powerful because it confirms what many people already believe, it is simple and tightly constructed, and it is supported by a large amount of evidence.
The argument centers centers on two things: the rates of children who are born to parents who are not married and on statistics that claim that children who are born to parents who are not married are less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to earn as much income as their counterparts, more likely to commit crimes, and more likely to be incarcerated. They state that since the 1960s, the rate at which children are born to unmarried parents has increased from 5% across the entire American population to 41% in 2015. For black Americans, it has gone from 25% in 1965 to 73% in 2105, and for white Americans, 5% and 25%, respectively. They argue that this rise in unmarried parents is primarily responsible (or a major cause of) the aforementioned issues facing black Americans.
The statistical evidence for childhood success for children whose parents are married at birth and remain married throughout their upbringing is strong. It is less clear, however, that success in life, as defined by a lack of criminal behavior, educational achievement, and adult employment among other factors, is primarily the result of being born to married parents and/or raised by married parents or if other factors like, parents’ employment, education level, criminal activity, relative wealth, health, parent availability, etc., which are related to whether or not parents are married, are more important than the marriage itself. Regardless, it seems undeniable that, everything else being equal, married parents who live with the children they are raising is good for childhood development and future success.
Larry Elder, a lawyer and media personality, aggressively makes the case in the video below. Please note its use of the aforementioned statistics, its reliance on the claim that children are better off with married parents, and his diagnosis at the end of the video for the reasons behind the decline in children being born to married parents.
Elder argues that the decline in marriage for parents of children in the US is due to the growing welfare state and ultimately makes the claim that women effectively “marry the government” rather than a husband in order to provide for material needs. It is implied, yet not directly stated, that this “married to the government” phenomenon happens more among black Americans, but Elder does not explain why this is so compared to other racial and ethnic groups, nor does he explain why the rate of children born outside of marriage to black Americans was so much higher than white Americans before large-scale income redistribution policies were enacted. He also does not explain why the number of children born to unmarried parents rose so rapidly among black Americans as compared to white Americans between the late 1800s and the 1960s.
There are further problems with Elder’s claim and with the general narrative from conservatives about the breakdown of the nuclear family as the core problem among black Americans. The most glaring issue, and one that I do not believe can be overcome by those pushing the narrative, is that the problems they claim are the result of the breakdown of the nuclear family were significantly worse before the 1960s. It makes little sense to claim that the breakdown of the nuclear family is the primary cause of these problems when the breakdown of the nuclear family occurred while these factors were improving rather than getting worse. One could rationally claim that the breakdown of the nuclear family is just one factor, or even one important factor, among societal problems that is particularly pronounced in the black community given marriage and birth statistics, but that is clearly not what they are claiming. They are claiming it’s the primary factor, and their reasoning is lacking.
Even if the narrative of the breakdown of the nuclear family among black Americans is downgraded from the primary cause to a significant cause, there’s still another serious problem. Elder, and other conservatives, cannot show that the breakdown of the nuclear family is the cause of societal problems instead of other underlying core issues.
I think Elder and the conservatives are wrong. While the decline of the nuclear family is a problem across western culture and this decline leads to a greater likelihood of negative effects on children and society as a whole, the decline of the nuclear family is a symptom of larger problems. The decline of the nuclear family is not simply the cause of these modern problems. It’s also the effect.
Tim Harford, a British economist, proposes the following thought experiment in his book The Logic of Life (68). “Imagine twenty single guys and twenty singles girls in a room.” He says to imagine that this is a “marriage supermarket” and that a man and a woman can couple up and go to the checkout line. If they pair with a person of the opposite sex, they receive $100. Every single man and woman in this room will find a couple, go to the checkout line and get their money. It’s also the case that in deciding how to split up their money, they will likely take a 50-50 split, each receiving $50. If there are no costs to getting married in this “marriage supermarket” and every couple receives $100, then everyone will find a match and everyone will receive $50.
Harford proposes a twist. What happens when instead of having 20 men and 20 women in the “marriage supermarket” only 19 men show up? Harford claims that this scarcity of men over women creates a massive bargaining advantage for the men over the women. Even this small change can have enormous effects.
Harford explains: “One woman is going to go home with neither a spouse nor a check from the cashier…The odd woman out, contemplating going home empty handed, will make the obviously rational decision to muscle in on an existing pairing. The unwanted woman could certainly offer a better deal than a fifty-fifty split, perhaps agreeing to accept only forty dollars. Her rival, being a similarly rational soul, won’t want to lose out entirely, so she’ll counterbid—maybe offering to accept just thirty dollars. The bids will fall until the woman who faces leaving alone is offering to walk through the checkout with some lucky guy and accept just one cent as the price of doing so. He’ll get $99.99; her one-cent profit is better than nothing.” (Harford, 69)
Harford continues and claims that not only will one woman offer a price of $.01, that because all the products are the same and offered at the same time and place, every woman in such a market gets only $.01 (the law of one price). In the “marriage supermarket” one man not showing up, drastically changes the bargaining power of each group to the massive detriment of the women. Harford acknowledges that this isn’t exactly how it plays out in the real world and that there are serious limitations to applying such a model, but it shows how even small changes to “the supply of men” can have significant changes to bargaining power in relationships.
Shortages of men or women is not something that only happens in thought experiments. It happens in the reality shows “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” in which scarcity and outrageous bargaining power in relationships is the feature of the show, immediately understood by all who watch or participate. It also happens in the real world. China’s one child policy and preference for male children has led to an enormous imbalance of men and women leaving women at a great advantage towards men in the dating market. As a result, Chinese women are marrying later in life and can be particularly selective about who they marry. Harford also points out that imbalances also happen regionally where cities and rural areas have varying ratios of men to women. “In forty-four out of forty-seven countries studied by (Lena) Edlund” of Columbia University, men are “in shorter supply in cities than in the countryside.” (Harford, 73) The result: it’s harder for women to find a decent male partner in cities.
Larry Elder’s and the conservatives’ argument fails because they do not take into consideration the effect of the imbalance of males and females in the “marriage market” among the black community in America. While black Americans face similar issues as people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds as far as differences between the numbers of men and women in rural and urban areas, black Americans male/female population is uniquely skewed by one enormous factor: prison.
Kerwin Kofi Charles and Ming Ching Luoh argue in Male Incarceration, the Marriage Market and Female Outcomes (link) that “each one percentage point increase in the incarceration rate is associated with a 2.4 percentage point reduction in the fraction of women in the marriage market who are ever married.” Harford claims using Charles and Luoh’s study, “In states where 20 or 25 percent of available men are in prison, young black women become very unlikely to marry. The effect is even more dramatic for uneducated women, since women tend to pair up with men of a similar education level and uneducated men are particularly likely to end up in jail.”(Harford, 75)
This incarceration effect on the marriage market has had a negative impact on the rates of marriage among black Americans because the overwhelming majority of black and white men and women marry a person of the same racial background. Also, because incarceration rates are not uniform throughout the country, in New Mexico, for example, 30 percent of black men between the ages of 20 to 35 are incarcerated, the incarceration effect can be especially devastating regionally.
The decline in marriage is not due to some logical error on the part of the unmarried, even among those who have children. The decline in marriage rates, especially among black Americans and other ethnic minorities, is a rational and predictable response to changes in the supply of men in the marriage market. As men have become more scarce, and have gained increased bargaining power in the marriage market, many have responded by avoiding marriage while still engaging in sexual relationships, long-term relationships, and fatherhood. Men can also rationally respond by choosing not to increase their value to those of the opposite sex through education, careers, or status. Women have also responded rationally, especially among black Americans. Black women have responded, as shown by Charles and Luoh, in exactly the way one would predict – by making themselves more attractive to partners due to scarcity, and protecting themselves and their children in case their partners cannot be relied upon by obtaining more education and through more gainful employment. Charles and Luoh further argue, that such educational and career gains, on average, do not have a net positive benefit with regards to poverty rates as the losses from marriage are too large.
In general, people respond rationally to the incentives in front of them. It shouldn’t be surprising that large shortages in the number of men of marriageable age affect marriage rates in a population. What is surprising is just how large that effect really is.
If it were the case, as Larry Elder has argued, that the primary cause of the decline of marriage rates among black Americans is due to the rise of income redistribution, or as others have claimed, due to problems within black culture, marriage rates should be rather uniform throughout the country or be consistent with the level of income redistribution in each state. They aren’t. They are, however, relatively consistent with incarceration rates both regionally, over time, and within racial and ethnic groupings.
This particular narrative fails as a counter to the issues raised by advocates of Black Lives Matter. While BLM is decentralized movement with a number of different voices, encounters with police, the likelihood of arrests, and incarceration has always been at the center of the movement. The breakdown of the nuclear family cannot explain away these issues among black Americans. Rather, the breakdown of the nuclear family is yet another symptom of systemic injustice that needs to be adequately addressed.
Mass incarceration has been devastating to the nuclear family, to marriage rates, and especially to black Americans. It has proven to be anti-family, anti-marriage, anti-women, anti-children, anti-black, and anti-American. If you consider yourself to be a person who is interested in promoting the American family and promoting marriage, ending mass incarceration, given the available evidence, can no longer be someone else’s issue.
The last time I saw Anthony was in the Greyhound bus station in Baltimore. He made contact with his father who had hadn’t spoken to in a long time, and his father had agreed that he could stay with him if Anthony chose. He told me that he needed money for a bus ticket to get to Connecticut, where his father lived. I didn’t trust him. I hadn’t trusted him for a long time. I thought he was just trying to play me again. I refused to give him any more money.
So I called his bluff. I asked him if he knew where he was going, which bus to take and where to stop. He had all that ready. So I drove him to the bus station. I walked up to the counter with him and purchased him a one-way ticket to Connecticut. We talked for about fifteen minutes in the waiting area. They called his bus. He said thank you. He hugged me. He got on, and I never saw him again.
It didn’t dawn on me until the bus was driving away that the result of calling his bluff might be that he took a bus to Connecticut and his father wasn’t actually there. I may have sent him somewhere he doesn’t know, alone, and with no one to help. He wasn’t able to take care of himself, he wasn’t a fully-functioning adult, and he wasn’t exactly an honest man. Maybe I was trying to get rid of him, or maybe I chose to trust him and thought this was his best chance. Most likely though, I just didn’t know what to do anymore and this was all that was left.
Drugs, addiction, prison, and his own poor choices ruined Anthony’s life. It separated him from his family, his community, and everything that he had hoped for out life. It’s my hope, although I can’t say for sure, that drugs and incarceration didn’t deny him the thing that so many people say that he needed: a relationship with his father. I hope his father was there at the end of the line and that he could care for him in a way that I, obviously, never could. I hope his father has values like my own: that he would never give up on his son. Whatever chance he has left, lies in his father and his father’s ability and willingness to properly care for my friend.
This last chance that Anthony has is being denied to many due to our society’s choices about mass incarceration. Its effects have spilled over from men in prison, to women getting married, to the quality of marriages in our communities, to women being single moms with full-time and often multiple jobs. It’s spilled over to children often not raised by both of their parents and all the negative effects that come with it. It robs many women of the opportunity to get married and it has robbed some men and women of even the incentive to do so. It reduces incentives for men to better themselves. It denies men their freedom to pursue their life’s ambitions, whatever they may be. And its hurting the American family.
The results are rational, predictable, and inevitable. But they don’t have to be.
1 “All Lives Matter” is an odd counter to “Black Lives Matter” as “All” necessarily includes “Black” and as such, the counter is self-defeating by affirming the messaging of its opposition – note to BLM supporters: “All Lives Matter” as a counter to BLM, isn’t an actual argument… it’s rhetorical strategy. By attempting to counter it, instead of moving on or accepting it – it is self defeating after all – you end up falling for the trap. Say yes to “All Lives Matter” as an independent statement, you accept your opponents counter leaving you in a weaker position. Say no to “All Lives Matter” as an independent statement, you’re either claiming that only one group matters or reject the foundation for why “Black Lives Matter”. Try to counter it contextually, and the argument shifts from your message to your messaging. Don’t play their game. You cannot lose if you do not play. Right now, BLM is playing that game, and losing.