Douglas J. Besharov, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, said the official data on black marriage from the early- to mid-20th century is unreliable. It was not uncommon, he said, for black mothers to tell survey-takers that they were separated, when in fact they had never been married, he said. The data for white women is similarly misleading, since many young white women got married as teens and divorced a few years later — a “shotgun wedding” pattern that doesn’t suggest long-term stability for children.
This pattern would mean that the frequency of non-marital births among African-Americans may have been higher than what the early 1960s statistics officially indicated, and the white rate of non-marital births may have been artificially low.
“Welfare” — the implicit target of the meme — existed well before the Great Society
The welfare rules of the 1960s may have imposed a “marriage penalty” on recipients — benefits that could be earned as a single person would disappear once a recipient got married. But such a pattern should have become evident well before the Great Society.
” ‘Welfare’ was part of the New Deal in the 1930s,” said Timothy M. Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin. “It was designed for widows with kids who didn’t qualify for Social Security, but it soon became a single-parent program for divorcees and later unmarried mothers.”
Correlation does not equal causation
Just because rates of fatherlessness rose after Johnson and the Great Society doesn’t mean they caused the increase. Lots of other factors were at play.
Besharov said the focus on Johnson is off-base. He said that the broader social currents of 1960s “liberalization” — more permissive sexual mores, easier divorce laws and greater financial independence due to rising rates of female employment, for instance — did play a role in higher rates of single-motherhood for all races, but “if you define ‘the Great Society’ as the things Johnson did, then there was very little impact” on single motherhood rates.