The Social World of Female-Headed Black Families: A Study of Quality of Life in a Marginalized Neighborhood

By Nandi, Prohanta K.; Harris, Hugh | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, May 1999 | Go to article overview

The Social World of Female-Headed Black Families: A Study of Quality of Life in a Marginalized Neighborhood


Nandi, Prohanta K., Harris, Hugh, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


Introduction

One of the distinct characteristics of the demographic landscape in America in recent decades has been the growing phenomenon of female-headed, single-parent, black family households which constituted 28% of all black family households in 1970, 40% in 1980, 44% each in 1985 and 1990, and 48% in 1994 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1995:61). These households are typically headed by young women on welfare, often with a child but no husband, who raise their children alone and in poverty. As documented by Garfinkel and McLanahan (1986), rising rates of divorce and non-marital child bearing in recent decades has led to this phenomenal increase in female-headed families. As a result of this, notes Harris (1993), the faces of poverty increasingly became those of women and children, a phenomenon which had earlier led one scholar to label it as the "feminization of poverty" (Pearce, 1978). According to the U.S. Census of 1990, 82% of the people in poor families are women and children. Taking her data from that Census, Harris (1993) noted that although one in five U.S. families with children was headed by a woman, three out of five poor families with children were female headed. Data over the last thirty years or so indicate that more and more mother-only households are falling into poverty.

The imagery of the social world these women live in is bleak. In general, it is perceived as consisting of life in drug-infested housing projects in the midst of poverty, violence and deprivation that adversely affect the quality of their lives (see Dubois, 1967; Baldwin and Skinner, 1989; and Moynihan, 1966 and 1986). This perception, however, has little resemblance to the perception the residents have of themselves vis-a-vis the structural and emotional circumstances of their living, and has even less congruity to the residents' attitudes, values, hopes, fears and concerns.

Adding on to the perspective of "quality of life" studies, the "social world" of a person or group in this research is conceptualized to consist of the individual's or group's perception of both subjective and inter-subjective dimensions of living - structural as well as the emotional - including what the person or the group believes to be his/her/its constraints, fears, concerns, hopes and aspirations.

What, then, is the social world of female-headed black families like? What are the structural and emotional contexts of their lives? What kinds of constraints do they encounter, and what are their fears, concerns, hopes and aspirations? Who do they think can help them most to get out of the cycle of poverty, crime and violence? Who or what do they cherish most in life? Answers to these questions constitute the focus of the present research on the social world of black families headed by females, and lead to an assessment of their quality of life.

Given that the subjects are poor, unorganized and marginalized from decisionmaking arenas, and that their views are rarely heard, answers to these questions are, perhaps, best discovered through the respondents' own voices (see e.g., Lipsitz, 1970; Verba, 1996). Of particular interest was heating what this population believed to be possible options for improving the quality of their own and their children's lives.

Quality of Life

The concept of "quality of life" has over the past two decades grown to be a major theoretical and research concern (for a cross-section of the extant literature in this area, see Andrews and Withey, 1976; Campbell, 1981; Cantril, 1965; Center for International Management Studies - referred to hereinafter as CIMS, 1975; Liu, 1975; and, Nandi, 1980). This concern simultaneously caused and emerged from the movement to develop social indicators of individual and group well-being. The concern with "quality of life" is neither new nor sudden. As Liu writes, "Quality of Life - QoL - is a new name for an old notion. It is a subjective name for the 'well being' of people and the environment in which they live. …

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