The Social Impact of One-Parent Homes in Milwaukee

Not long ago, I was listening to the Tory Lowe Show on 101.7 The Truth, Black Talk Radio. Beside his radio job, Tory Lowe is a Black activist who helps victims of domestic violence through his organization, Justice Wisconsin. He posed this question for his listeners: Why are there so many single woman head of households in the Black community? He explained, “On Facebook, I saw a picture from the 1960s showing a Black man, Black woman and three Black children. The man and two boys wore suits, and the mother and daughter wore their Sunday best. The post compared that picture with a picture from 2019, a single Black woman with a durag and four children lookin’ very casual.” 

Looking at the problem historically, how did Milwaukee’s Black culture evolve from the 1960s when families had a dad and a mom to 2022 when most families have single mothers. Lowe told his listeners, “Many people think that the government agenda of welfare and social engineering caused this change, or the loss of good industrial jobs, or even the women’s rights movement.”

I checked out the facts. The latest 2020 study from UW-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development looked at racial inequality among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas. The Black poverty rate in Milwaukee is the highest in the country at 33.4%. Another study commissioned by the African American Leadership Alliance Milwaukee, with support from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, found that the city ranks at the bottom of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas on measures of well-being for African Americans. To add to the alarm, a 2014 study of Milwaukee’s Black community found that seven out of 10 Black children live in single-parent households, and four out of five Black children live in poverty. Although I could find no later study, many social experts think that 75% of Black households in Milwaukee currently have one-parent mothers.

I tracked down Lowe to talk about this topic. At 45 years old, he knows the territory. He went to North Division High School, one of the worst schools at the time. He earned a scholarship for football at Iowa Community Lakes College and got his degree in mass communications. As a young adult, he was a deacon at the Bethlehem Temple Church on Center Street. 

Social Engineering?

I reminded him of what he said on his radio show, that social engineering was one of the causes for the demise of the traditional Black family into single heads of households.   

He told me, “Seems like in the 1960s and before, the Black family was intact, a mom and a dad. By the late 1980s, it all started changing. The big manufacturers and beer companies moved out, and Black men lost their jobs. Drug dealing came on as a way to make money. The crack cocaine epidemic followed in the late 1980s and 1990s and beyond. The cocaine era destroyed a lot of families. There was a war on drugs. Many Black men went to jail or prison or became addicts. The government welfare programs funded women with children. If there was a man in the house, the benefit payments were stopped because the theory was the man should be working. Many women would continue to have children to get more benefits—food stamps, childcare, low income housing, welfare. This is the narrative that started the explosion of single-family households.”

In other words, the Black family tradition started to crumble after so many women were taking financial benefits from the federal, state and city governments, and also from nonprofits and charitable money. This all led to high Black unemployment.

I thought of something else to consider. I’ve had a number of Black men tell me that it’s kind of emasculating because the welfare system rewards the woman. The man and the family are penalized if he returns to the household or even gets a menial job. Black male pride suffers. Some of these men resort to illegal activities to bring in money. The central city has kind of an underground economy built on criminal activities.

“Look at the normal needs of people, Black or white,” said Lowe. “Despite living in poverty, people still want cars and entertainment, TVs, cell phones, toys for their children. The community economy becomes selling drugs, stealing cars, robbery, breaking the law to get ahead. People will take those chances as a way out of poverty.”  

I told him, “I’ve had a couple of single Black mothers tell me, ‘Why should I get a job at Popeye’s or Walmart for $12 an hour when I can make more money off welfare plus get free childcare?’”

“That’s social engineering,” he said. “So you got three kids and it costs $200 a week for each kid’s daycare. If the mom works at Walmart, she’s paying most of her salary to daycare. What is her motivation to work? If she’s on welfare, she gets the free daycare and qualifies for low-income housing. A voucher might get her a two-bedroom apartment and she pays maybe $200 per month.”

Urban Destruction

Another factor that led to single parent Black households happened when the freeways isolated the Black neighborhoods. Throughout the 1960s, the I-43 freeway was built right through the northern Black neighborhoods a few blocks west of what is now MLK Drive. Over time, that freeway construction led to the demolition of roughly 17,000 homes and nearly 1,000 businesses. Further segregated, Black families were displaced. MSOE Professor Michael Carriere wrote, ‘This feeling of vulnerability was compounded by the fact that these new roads tore apart the social fabric of these neighborhoods while undercutting the very institutions that supported residents.’

Lowe made another observation. “The City of Milwaukee and the suburbs are the best places for whites to live, good jobs, good schools, family activities, money, houses, businesses—but Milwaukee is one of the worst places for Blacks. I got white friends who love it here. When I go with them to Downtown, Riverwalk, Brady Street, Water Street, clubs, the Brewers, the Bucks, it’s great! Yet these places are a stone’s throw from the North Side where life is totally different. The overarching controlling forces—police, judicial system, elected leaders, department heads—are stacked against Blacks. White people want results, and the elected leaders favor their needs.”

Why should single-mom households matter? Roland Warren is the President and CEO of Care Net. As a Black influencer, Warren is a leading voice for the priority of fatherhood in America. In a recent YouTube forum, he said, “We want the best possible outcome for children. The data shows that kids do best on every level—social, economics, education—when they are raised in households where there are two married parents in a high quality, low conflict marriage. From 1890 to 1960, the marriage rate was the same comparing the white communities with the Black communities.” 

In the United States in 1990, there were 3.4 million Black families with a single mother. In 2020, 4.25 million Black families had a single mother

Advocate for Mothers

For first-hand knowledge, I turned to Elizabeth Brown. At 45, “Liz” Brown calls herself an advocate rather than an activist. She grew up in the heart of the central city, 20th and Brown. Along with Lowe, she advocates for women who have been domestically abused, and for fair housing, nonviolence and sexual assault victims. She gives talks in schools and in summer programs, and counsels single moms in their homes. She is also the author of a children’s book on childhood trauma, Lizzy Bee the Busy Bee: “It’s Okay To Tell!” Co-authored by her daughter Amazshea Lee, the book helps parents and teachers educate children on sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

When I asked Brown about single mom families, she told me, “My daughter coaches the Milwaukee Vincent High School girls basketball team. All seven Black girls on the team live in single parent homes. Two girls have sisters who recently graduated and already have babies.”

Brown has been a single mother all her adult life and has one daughter. “In helping young single moms,” she said, “I try to lead by example, be a good listener, be kind of a fairy godmother. I was 21 when I had my daughter. Her father, my boyfriend, cheated on me, and I left him. That was tough on me, especially raising a daughter. Like various single Black parents, I lived in different houses around the inner-city community.”

After graduating high school, she earned a certificate in financial services, had her daughter, and worked at Blue Cross in Brookfield for 10 years, and then at Johnson Controls. When her daughter finished high school, she earned a degree from Waukesha Tech and got a job at St Charles Youth & Family Services, and eventually left there. 

She explained the issue. “Understand this about being a single mother in the Black community. Basically, love relationships are difficult due to the childhood trauma so many of us went through. When you’ve dealt with trauma as a child, an absent father, a mom scraping along, this can be the breakdown of the family. You don’t know how to properly communicate love. For Black teen girls and young women, they might believe love is supposed to be finding that perfect man. But we don’t even know about ourselves, not with upbringing in a broken home. Our script is based on the pursuit of happiness like you see on the family TV shows, the Cosby Show, and on commercials and movies. But real life in the Black community isn’t like that. Young Black mothers experience depression and anxiety because the script they tried to follow wasn’t like the movie romance. Real life crashed down on them.”

Sexual Abuse

Real life impacted Brown at an early age. She was sexually abused from the ages of 7 to 9. The rapist warned her she would get in trouble if she told anyone. “My biggest fear was what would happen if my father found out, what he would do the rapist and that my father would be taken away from our family and go to prison,” she said. “In a way, I was trying to protect my family by keeping quiet. I later found out my abuser had also violated my little sister.” 

I asked, “Does this abusive behavior still go on? In your counseling these teenage and younger women, do you hear of sexual abuse when they were girls?”

“Oh, yes, it’s very prevalent,” she said. “But not just in young women, but in young men, too. That kind of experience robs you of your youth, your innocence, your energy. Many Black men often have trouble being intimate in a relationship without involving sex. Many men just can’t crush on a girl, sit on a couch, hold hands, watch TV.”

There was a larger issue, and I raised the question. If you are brought up in a neighborhood that has a fair amount of sexual abuse as children instead of a neighborhood with functioning families, then how can you expect to end up raising a normal family as an adult?

“Good question,” she replied. “This is yet another challenge above and beyond all the other challenges. When I worked at St. Charles Youth & Family Services, I saw juveniles sometimes charged with sexual crimes. Most of them come from abusive family backgrounds. A child who’s been touched is gonna touch. My own family is five generations deep with women being sexually violated. Throughout Black history, there is a kind of pattern of being seen and not heard. Goes back to the slavery days. If you are a girl who’s been sexually abused, you never bring that up with your mom or dad. They won’t listen.”

Community Involvement

I asked, “How do you, Liz Brown, go about helping a needy woman or girl? Who notifies you of a problem?”

“Members of the community I live in,” she said. “I get contacted by Facebook inbox or by Tory Lowe or a family member who sees a problem. When I first go into a home to check on domestic abuse or teenage mother problems, I just try to listen. In the Black community, a lot of the youth tell me that when they talk to adults, the adults talk at them and not to them. When I advocate for someone, I keep an open door, stay in touch, stay engaged, teach them how to advocate for themselves. A lot of single mothers just need somebody to hear them.” 

“I think there are also cultural issues,” I said. “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I am turned off by some of the lyrics in rap songs, which are insulting to women—‘ho’s, bitches, cunts, fuck up a bitch nigga.’ There is a line from a Lil Boosie song—‘So We Fuck’em And Dump’em Never Trust’em Or Love’em’—If some Black men buy into this, aren’t they more likely to treat women as sex objects? Are women OKJ with this?”

“It’s not what they call you,” Liz said, “it’s what you answer to. You know who you are, and you’re not a bitch or a ho or a cunt. Keep in mind that rap is a form of entertainment and it’s promoted by the big music companies. The word ‘nigga’ is freely used and even promoted in rap songs. But those are just words, not actions, not physical abuse. Rap songs do not kill anybody. Every man and woman came into this world through a woman. They have the ability to respect the vagina. We need to teach children to respect themselves, understand the difference between real life and entertainment.” 

I told her I am puzzled as to why are there so many single Black teen girls who get pregnant and have kids when condoms are freely available.

“It’s the lack of education,” Brown pointed out. “When I go into the schools and summer programs and speak to parents about sexual issue, parents are afraid of that conversation, meaning the girls have trouble talking to their parents about condoms and such. The stigma says you should not be having sex. Instead, juveniles need to be taught how to respect their bodies. You also see the hyper-sexuality that happens on TV, in video games, music, and social media. Add on the raging hormones of teens.” 

I was thinking that it still comes down on how to improve Black family life, reduce the number of single mom households. A broad topic, but I wanted her opinion.

“Well, I’m leading by example,” she said. “You have to walk it like you talk it. Women I try to help know that I’ve been through the same as they have. Your actions have to match what you say. I demand respect for myself and for the women, men and children that I help. The majority of them are broken on the inside. They have to fix the inside first, not just the outside.”

Another troubling issue is infant mortality. In Milwaukee, while there’s been an overall decline in infant mortality, for Blacks, the infant death rate is 14.9, and for whites, it is 4.6. Data from the Milwaukee County Health Department shows that Black babies in Milwaukee are three times more likely to die before their first birthday compared to white babies. Wisconsin has the highest Black infant mortality rate in the nation. According to USA Today and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin has seen a 400% increase in new applications to open prenatal care coordination companies in recent years. In 2021, Medicaid spent $22 million on prenatal care. I contacted a Medicaid subcontractor who approves or disapproves Medicaid claims through case management. She sometimes interacts with single mothers from the central city.  

She told me, “Many of the cases I deal with are from Children’s Hospital. Children may have been brought in for diabetes, burns on their bodies, bruises, accidents, not eating. In 95% of my cases, the legal guardian of a child is listed as the mother or possibly the grandmother. The father is rarely involved in any of my cases and almost never involved in my conversations. The only time I ever spoke to a father was when the mother was incarcerated. Keep in mind, for my client to receive Medicaid, the case has to meet the federal guidelines. This is all part of the welfare system.” 

She further explained, “In most cases, I will approve the Medicaid payments, but I don’t know what is going on behind the scenes, home life, physical abuse, sexual abuse, multiple brothers and sisters, bad parenting, or if there is even a father present. Recently, I talked to a family about getting Medicaid help. Eight children in the house, parent asleep, and the 12-year old-boy played with matches and set the 4-year old girl on fire. She ended up at Children’s Hospital.

“In another case, I had a 15-year-girl who was pregnant and living with a friend and the brother of that friend. The girl told me she planned to have the baby and would be able to take care of it even though she has no job and no high school degree. The baby’s father was never part of the conversation. I have to approve her prenatal care and how Medicaid will be paying for both her and her baby. This is kind of a common situation, teen girl getting pregnant with no means of support. It would be great if this cycle could be broken, but that goes beyond what I can do to help.”

Black fatherhood advocate Roland Warren tells a story. “A friend told me about a troubling experience while he was working as a teacher’s aid in an inner-city elementary school of primarily African American children. The teacher of the class gave her students a homework assignment. They were to develop a family tree. When the students returned to class with the completed assignments, my friend noticed a disturbing pattern. On the mother side of their trees, there were lots of branches and leaves representing grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. But the father side of their trees was generally bare. In fact, a significant number of the children only knew their fathers by their ‘street’ names.” 


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