The Severely-Distressed African American Family in the Crack Era: Empowerment Is Not Enough

Article excerpt

Numerous African American families have struggled for generations with persistent poverty, especially in the inner city. These conditions were further strained during the 1980s and 1990s by the widespread use of crack cocaine. For many, crack use became an obsession, dominated their lives, and superseded family responsibilities. This behavior placed additional pressure on already stressed kin support networks. This paper explores the processes prevailing in two households during this period. In the 2000s, children born to members of the Crack Generation are avoiding use of crack but face major deficits from their difficult childhoods. This presents both challenges and opportunities. The discussion considers initiatives from both a social problems and a strengths perspective that could help these families and help these families help themselves to advance their economic circumstances.

Keywords: family, crack, black, foster care, kin networks, poverty, innercity

Introduction

Poverty can be much more than a lack of money or work or even motivation. For many, it is the circumstances resulting from a trans-generational social history filled with struggle against harsh conditions, structural impediments and limited opportunities as well as the continuation and evolution of cultural traditions, and the emergence of new subcultural norms in the face of these conditions. In this regard, elevating large percentages (if not all) of an impoverished group means creating (or helping them to create) a positive next chapter in their collective experience. To this end, a rich appreciation of a group's recent history provides insight into the prevailing circumstances, the complex array of associated problem, and the resources and capacities available to them. This information provides social workers and other helping professionals with a strong start on understanding the individual narratives of potential clients from the group, especially those less able to articulate their stories such as young children. This information also illuminates the ecological context in which these personal narratives are based. In doing so, the information provides social policy analysts with potential justification for larger policy initiatives that may involve changes in laws and procedures as well as require the allocation of significant effort and funding.

This paper looks at a recent chapter in the story of the African-American family, the devastation of crack cocaine on already distressed inner-city families. As an analytic vehicle, this paper presents the experiences of two households that were identified and followed in the course of an extended ethnographic study of drug use and violence in the inner-city. Their experiences are presented as sharing many characteristics common within the population of interest. Their stories provide detailed insights into the lived experience in context.

There has been a controversy raging in the social work literature between advocates of a strengths- versus a problem-focused practice (McMillen, Morris & Sherraden, 2004; Saleebey, 1996, 2004; Utesch, 2005). A similar and ongoing controversy has prevailed in the historical and public policy literatures on the African American family described later in this paper (for excellent reviews see Dodson, 1997, and Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2005). Saleebey (1996) disparages problem-focused practice as demoralizing clients by reducing their concerns to a label, as opposed to the strengths perspective, which emphasizes individual competencies that can facilitate resilience. On the other hand, McMillen, Morris and Sherraden (2004) suggest that the distinction between the problems- and strengths-based approaches is artificial, unnatural and potentially counterproductive in their article, "Ending Social Works Grudge Match: Problems Versus Strengths". They contend that the difference in approaches is merely emphasis and that the enlightened practice of either approach should consider both problems and strengths. …