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(Last updated 3/1/04)



COLUMBUS, Ohio – The federal government’s programs designed to help the disadvantaged have not only failed to help African Americans, but nearly forty years later they may have left many African American families worse off than they were before.

That’s the conclusion of K. Sue Jewell, author of the book Survival of the African American Family: The Institutional Impact of U.S. Social Policy (Praeger, 2003).

Jewell, a sociologist and assistant professor of African-American and African Studies at Ohio State University, argues that both liberal and conservative policies since the 1960s have damaged effective Black institutions without bettering the plight of the disadvantaged.

“There was a great deal of hope during the 1960s that new government programs would break down the walls of institutional discrimination and help African-American families achieve the American dream,” Jewell said.

“But if anything, many African-American families are worse off now than before.

“There was this belief among African Americans that if they played by the rules, and adopted middle class values, they would be given equal opportunities and achieve success similar to that of whites. But that hasn’t happened.”

Many of the liberal social policies instituted as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” inadvertently hurt African American families, she said. The programs damaged traditional sources of help such as informal social support systems and have not helped create financial independence.

Some of the liberal social programs that did have a beneficial impact – such as educational grants, affirmative action and health programs – were cut back or eliminated by the Reagan and Bush administrations, and were not restored by the Clinton administration.

“Over the past 40 years, there have been some gains for African-American families, but many more losses,” Jewell said.

Social policies have failed to adequately address poor quality urban schools, employment discrimination, predatory lenders, and loss of jobs. Many forms of discrimination that policies have been unable to prevent are subtle and occur in the form of institutional policies and practices, she said.

Jewell said the liberal social policies of the 1960s raised the expectations of African Americans and made them believe they could succeed in America.

“There was this belief among African Americans that if they played by the rules, and adopted middle class values, they would be given equal opportunities and achieve success similar to that of whites,” she said. “But that hasn’t happened.”

While some African Americans have worked their way into the middle and upper classes of society, they are finding that they are now facing new barriers because of their race. For example, racial profiling by police and discrimination in mortgage lending and by insurance companies have especially hurt blacks as they moved into the middle class.

“Once African Americans worked their way into the middle and upper classes, they encountered a new set of problems that they hadn’t experienced before,” she said. “They found that they still don’t have the same opportunities as whites.”

Many scholars have debated whether African Americans’ lack of success in American society was mostly because of their race, or because of their lower social class, Jewell said. The problems that middle class blacks face today show that it is indeed race that has hurt blacks in the United States, she said.

These forms of discrimination against the middle class send a message to youth that there may not be an incentive to work hard in school and try to get a good job.

“They may still not achieve the American dream,” Jewell said.
The failure of government programs to help African-American families means that the Black community itself has to come up with strategies to improve their own situation, according to Jewell. Government social programs are still extremely important, but they must work in cooperation with existing institutions in the African-American community, such as the Black church.

Black churches have to make sure they continue to help their communities as they get larger, Jewell argued. The growth of Black “megachurches” has caused some to move to larger quarters in outlying urban areas and in the suburbs. But this has meant that inner-city residents without transportation can no longer attend.

“For many families, the Black church is their one bastion of hope, and when these churches move out of the inner-city, these families often feel a sense of loss,” she said.

Jewell said that these churches should consider maintaining several churches as they expand, which would allow them to stay in the inner city.

Jewell said the federal government still needs to play an important role to ensure that African Americans have the same opportunities as whites in the United States. The government should do this in conjunction with institutions like the Black church.

“Social policy has to build on the strengths of African-American institutions such as the Black church in order to promote the stability of families in the community,” she said.

In formulating social policies that address institutional discrimination and developing remedies for these practices, the federal government must enlist the support of the Black Church and other African American organizations and institutions in order to make a real difference, she said.

Effective policies to help African Americans should “build on the strengths of African-American institutions and families”, and include policies that can provide genuine solutions for institutional forms of race, gender and class inequality, she said.

“It is difficult to think of a social policy that can improve the status of African-American families that doesn’t use the existing resources in the African-American community,” she said.


Contact: K. Sue Jewell, (614) 688-8216; Jewell.3@osu.edu
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu