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Ever since the 1965 Moynihan Report on “The Negro Family,” the rate of children born in African-American homes without fathers has been a key statistic in social science discussions and policy debates. Back then, it was 25 percent. Today, it’s 70 percent, a rate extraordinary enough to have become a standard citation in discussions ranging from rap music to African-American test scores to Ferguson, Missouri.

A widely-circulated blog post last year at Atlantic Monthly by Ta-Nahisi Coates challenged the statistic, though, and it bears examination. Coates doesn’t dispute the rate itself, but he invokes other statistics to contextualize it so that it doesn’t look as if African-American mothers are producing many more fatherless children than they did back in the 1960s.

The astounding rise is due to other trends, he states.

First, more African-American women are remaining unmarried.

Second, the birthrate for African-American women has dropped, sliding from around 97 per 1,000 in the early-70s to below 60 per 1,000 in the 00s.

Third, the birthrate for married African-American women has dropped, sliding from (roughly) 130 per thousand in 1970 to 70 per thousand in 2009.

In other words, the rising rate of fatherless black children is mainly an effect of changing decisions about marriage by single black women and decisions about having children by married black women. Steep declines in both have made the illegitimacy rate climb.

The full picture leads Coates to claim, “I point this out to show that the idea that the idea that, somehow, the black community has fallen into a morass of cultural pathology is convenient nostalgia.”

Think about that judgment. It says that the dire trend of most black children having no father around isn’t a sign of “moral or cultural decline.” Rather, it stems from understandable choices by adult black women. Indeed, those decisions are “logical,” he writes, given the positive relation of single lifestyles to employment.

But this explanation changes the bare fact of 70 percent not one bit. When we had a 25 percent rate of absent-father children, the norm of present-father children was still secure. Now, the norm in the black community is for fathers to disappear. Just because the rate may be due both to single African-American women choosing not to marry and to married African-American women choosing not to have children doesn’t soften the circumstance of fatherlessness.

When more than two out of three children in a population grow up without their fathers, all of the pathological outcomes that go with fatherlessness are reinforced and normalized. To deny that it signifies a moral and cultural decline is willful blindness.

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