African American Mothers and Grandmothers in Poverty: An Adaptational Perspective

Article excerpt


Recent demographic studies have documented changes in household and family formation patterns among African Americans. Focusing specifically on low-income families, they have discerned increases in female headship, decreases in marriage, and increases in non-marital childbearing (Nichols-Casebolt, 1988; Darity and Meyers, 1984; Joe, 1984; Wilson, 1987). The current prominence of demographic studies represents a major shift in how poverty is studied. Past studies of poor African American families include both demographic and adaptational approaches. In addition to profiling the statistical characteristics of families, poverty researchers also describe their coping strategies. Today, however, adaptational studies have had relatively little impact on scholarly discussions. A major consequence of this narrow research focus is that, while contemporary researchers have an understanding of the demographic characteristics of families, they know much less about their internal dynamics (Baca Zinn, 1989, 1990; Jarrett, 1994).

This article addresses issues of coping and adaptation among low-income families, using comparative data from two generations of poor women (mothers and grandmothers). More specifically, the article examines how African American women subjectively experience poverty in their daily lives and how, on the basis of these experiences, they make choices and manage economic marginality.


The Demographic Perspective

Recent studies of poor African American families have concentrated on the nature and magnitude of change in family and household structure. Reflecting a demographic analytic focus, aggregate data are used to document the relationship between female headship and various correlates. Key variables include welfare receipt, employment, and poverty (McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994; Wilson and Aponte, 1985).

A review of the research reveals two key findings. First, households headed by females have increased dramatically in the past three decades. For example, African American female-headed households were 28 percent in 1970, 40 percent in 1980, and 44 percent in 1990 (Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1992). Second, the current cohort of African American female heads are younger, have never been married, and have children outside of wedlock (Wilson, 1987; Furstenberg, Jr. et al., 1987; Nichols-Casebolt, 1988; see also McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994).

The major strength of the demographic perspective is its identification of changes in household and family formation patterns among African Americans. Yet, it is limited in generating a full understanding of how poor African American families who reflect these changes actually manage.

The Adaptational Perspective

During the 1960's and 1970s, researchers focussed on the ways that poor African American families perceived their situations and coped with the constraints imposed by poverty (Hannerz, 1975; Maxwell, 1988). Reflecting an adaptational analytic focus, case-study data based on participant observation and intensive interviewing described the subjective experiences of and internal dynamics within poor families. These studies were part of an attempt to understand poverty along with demographically-oriented studies (Baca Zinn, 1989, 1990; Jarrett, 1994; Wilson and Aponte, 1985).

A review of such research identifies specific existential dilemmas and resultant adaptational strategies. Poor individuals shared conventional attitudes and values concerning family life. However, economic impediments limited the expression of these beliefs in behavior. Thus, despite a preference for legal marriage and childbearing within marriage, many poor individuals remained single and bore children out of wedlock (Rainwater, 1970). Further, adaptational studies reveal a range of coping strategies, including child fosterage, shared living arrangements, and flexible parenting roles (Aschenbrenner, 1975; Martin and Martin, 1978; Stack, 1974; Valentine, 1978; Zollar, 1985). …