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Kin networks and poverty among African Americans: past and present.

Many current public policies and programs that affect poor African Americans place increasing responsibility on families to provide their members with child care, kinship foster care, financial resources, and other types of vital support. The design of these policies, thus, is predicated on the existence of strong family systems to mitigate the stresses and challenges of poverty. Here we examine diverse research evidence and argue that the a priori assumption by social workers that historically viable kin networks remain as reliable sources of support among poor African Americans as they were in the past must be re-examined in the current sociopolitical environment.

Studies of kin networks among African Americans during the first several decades of the 20th century emphasized how they supported the capacities of network members to survive harsh economic and social oppression through sharing resources, often facilitating work activity and so contributing to upward mobility over generations (Hill, 1972). Subsequent changes in the structure of economic opportunity, deteriorating urban community resources, and the effect of long-term family poverty have diminished the functional capacities of some kin networks while placing greater demands on them. By examining historical and current literature about kin networks among low-income African Americans, we draw attention to broad changes in kin networks in their structure and function and how well they meet members' needs in the contemporary context. This knowledge is important for social workers to avoid abdicating responsibility to advocate for and to provide assistance to families in need.


Within the large literature on family, kinship, and social networks, certain conceptual distinctions are especially useful for examining how low-income African American individuals interact with relatives and friends on a regular basis to support their well-being. Following Johnson (2000), we define kinship networks broadly as "extended family," including those connected by "blood, marriage or self-ascribed association" beyond the "marital dyad, the nuclear family of parents and dependent children, or one-parent households" (p. 625).

Kin networks often are analyzed in terms of their structure and function. The structure of a kin network refers to its "building blocks," those individuals who are counted as members and how they are related to one another (Johnson, 2000). With some variation, these building blocks refer to specific properties that typically include the number of members or social ties, the frequency of contact between members, the directness of interaction, household composition, and other indicators of physical proximity (Angel & Tienda, 1982; Johnson, 2000). Thus, networks of kin include individuals who are related across (lineal) and within (collateral) generations, through parents, by marriage (in-law), or by choice (fictive) (Beck & Beck, 1989; Bowie, 1992; Chatters, Taylor, & Jayakody, 1994; Cherlin, 2002; Hatchett & Jackson, 1993; Rainer, 1992; Roschelle, 1993).

The second important aspect of networks is the actual substance of relationships as expressed through their function, including the kind and amount of support given and received by members. A further distinction exists between support that is instrumental and that which is expressive (Roschelle, 1997). Instrumental support is the provision of services and tangible goods--for example, help with child care, grocery shopping, and household tasks--and the exchange of money, food stamps, clothing, and furniture on a regular, periodic, or emergency basis (Boisjoly, Duncan, & Hofferth, 1995; Stack, 1974).

In contrast to the more concrete nature of instrumental support, expressive support functions "primarily to help solve socioemotional problems" (Roschelle, 1997, p. ix). Although instrumental support also may give psychological succor, expressive support as a distinct category refers to the interpersonal interactions that directly provide emotional support, such as giving advice, discussing problems, and simply conversing, either in another's physical presence or long distance.

Both instrumental and expressive assistance are types of "social support" that "help individuals to 'get by' or cope with the demands of everyday life and other stresses" (Dominguez & Watkins, 2003, p. 112), although the ostensible "help" offered is not always perceived by the recipient as being positive.


There is a rich tradition of research examining kinship structure and function among African Americans. Although not the first to formulate this view, in 1939 sociologist E. Franklin Frazier published the highly influential The Negro Family in the United States, arguing that slavery had a deeply disorganizing effect on black family formation thereafter, particularly among the poor, initially in the rural south and then in urban ghettos (Dollard, 1937; Frazier, 1939). Subsequently, scholars have proposed theoretically diverse explanations for the lower prevalence of marital nuclear families and the greater incidence of childbearing outside of marriage among low-income African Americans.

Presenting a counter argument to Frazier's "slavery" perspective implying structural deficiency, the major early proponent of an "Africanist" analysis was Melvin Herskovits (1941). Herskovits asserted that, rather then representing the absence of family organization, the nonmainstream family forms that continued well beyond slavery represent bona fide cultural norms retained from West African culture. Anthropological theory distinguishes between family membership that is affinal, kinship through spousal ties, and consanguinal, kinship that is biologically based on blood ties (Fox, 1967). In contrast to Western European norms valuing affinal relatedness, Sudarska (1981) elaborated the Africanist thesis in arguing that African families traditionally have been organized around consanguine ties. Some scholars have suggested this might help explain the strong historic presence of extended family kinship among African Americans (Allen, 1978; King, 1984; Nobles, 1985; Sudarska, 1981).

Although scholars of black families have focused particularly on the high incidence of single-mother families, they have also long noted the importance of extended families based on "blood, marriage and culture" (McKinnon, 2001). Stevenson (1995) observed that during the ante-bellum period slaves often "created their kin networks with those with whom they felt if not cultural or blood affinity, then some political or 'class' affiliation as well as social and emotional compatibility. The extended family ideal, a common trait of numerous indigenous African cultures from which slaves derived, took on its broadest interpretation during the first generation of colonial southern slaves" (p. 40).

Following the northward migration of black southerners during the 20th century, a rich body of community-based studies documented extended kin networks among low-income black urban residents. McAdoo (1981) summarized the themes of these studies of migration in describing the "support chains" used by African Americans during the Great Migration from the south. The seminal studies of urban migration by scholars of the Chicago School of Sociology at the University of Chicago described kin networks in extended household structures that contained members outside of a married couple and their children. For example, in their classic study of "Bronzeville" in Chicago, Drake and Cayton (1945) described fluid household composition as a culturally normative response to limited economic opportunity. Extended family networks provided a springboard for new migrants trying to make their way in the city and a safety net in the event of setbacks:

Many of these families were actually mutual-aid societies, originated and maintained by economic necessity.... A married couple might be displeased at the prospect of supporting relatives, but the larger the household, the greater the chance that somebody might find a job. There was always, too, the possibility that the person with a job might lose it--and woe unto him who had once turned his relatives away. (Drake & Cayton, 1945, p. 581)

More than 25 years later, anthropologist Ulf Hannerz (1969) observed complex changeable patterns of residence in Washington, DC, in which poor black women frequently lived with their mothers, sisters, related children, and other kin with "open household boundaries":
 The household composition of street families is
 quite variable, both between households and in
 a single household over time. To a certain extent,
 this is undoubtedly due to strains arising from
 external pressures--the many separations and
 divorces, for instance, which result in husbandless
 households, and the economic pressure which
 makes it more or less a necessity to take boarders
 even when there is hardly any extra space
 to spare. (p. 50)

Contemporaneous with Hannerz, Lee Rainwater (1970) described kin relations among the impoverished residents of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. In Behind Ghetto Walls (1970), he documented the presence of networks that provided daily assistance in the face of material deprivation, but also foreshadowed the difficulties of once-strong family networks to buffer the effect of poverty. On the one hand, Rainwater's informants expressed the belief that "blood is thicker than water" and all that that implies for helping kin in the face of a "pressing need or crisis--being broke, a serious illness in the family, not having a home, losing a job" (Rainwater, 1970, p. 68). On the other hand, the daily exigencies of living in poverty often resulted in ambivalent participation in kin networks because of fear of being "taken advantage" of by others in need and the burden of reciprocity:

If one's resources are so limited that he cannot live up to putative responsibilities, it is better for all parties to try to avoid a clear statement of these responsibilities. People in Pruitt-Igoe are continually confronting isolation as an alternative to the risk of trouble that comes from full participation in relationships with relatives and friends. They know they must run the risk of trouble to satisfy their instrumental needs, their needs for affiliation, for avoiding loneliness. (Rainwater, 1970, p. 72).

These analyses of earlier patterns of kin networks suggest their utility as adaptive strategies in the face of limited and unpredictable availability of resources. They also reveal that participation could exact heavy psychological and material costs from individual members. Paradoxically, then, the very conditions of poverty that motivated some individuals to participate in kin networks can militate against effective participation. In recent decades, those conditions have worsened among some low-income African Americans residing in more economically homogeneous, concentrated, and isolated communities--especially when family members who achieve upward economic mobility choose to remove themselves physically from the neighborhoods where many family members remain in poverty.

Recent research reveals complex dynamics associated with this demographic shift among African American families. In Patillo-McCoy's (1999) ethnographic study of the Chicago community of "Groveland," an informant explained how the "first son" moved north to Chicago, purchased an apartment building to facilitate the migration of his extended family, "and then each family member moved to Chicago, lived in the apartment building. They paid the mortgages together and the next family saved for an apartment building" (p. 187). Like residents of "Bronzeville" decades earlier, these migrants relied on family members to help them survive the challenges of urban life:

And my mother came and moved in the basement of one of those homes. Raised us with her sisters. And like one worked outside the home, one did hair inside the home, and my mother worked outside home. And so the hairdresser was the babysitter. And she kept all the kids, you know, that lived in the house. And when they all came home they split the money evenly and they survived. It was a plan. It was a structure. (Patillo-McCoy, 1999, p. 187)

Having achieved upward mobility through professional education, she is aware of the potential demands on her as the economic safety net shrinks under her more vulnerable kin:
 Cause I think we'll (blacks) be the first victims
 of welfare reform.... But just think about your
 family. You know, those people that are gonna
 be hurt by it, they're gonna come to their family
 first for support. And you're tryin' to support
 your family. And how much support can you
 give? (p. 198)

Indeed, how much support can kin provide, particularly when the needs are considerable and the collective resources are limited?


Many scholars have noted the effect of increasing physical, social, racial-ethnic, and economic isolation on families in impoverished inner-city communities. When Drake and Cayton (1945) observed in Chicago an essentially vital and heterogeneous if materially deprived community, today one often sees poor urban neighborhoods plagued by violence, use of drugs, few living-wage jobs, and lack of economic opportunity (Farber, 1999; Wilson, 1987, 1996). Some other consequences of this increased isolation include a decline in the prevalence of household extension and informal social support networks and withdrawal of many families from reciprocal relationships within the community (Furstenberg, 1993; Roschelle, 1993; Taylor & Sellers, 1997; Tigges, Browne, & Green, 1998; Wilson, 1987). In and around communities with a high concentration of very poor families, the capacity of kin and other informal social networks to provide members with relationship-based resources that might ameliorate the stressors from poverty--let alone lift them up from poverty by enhancing future achievement--also is limited. There are several reasons for this limitation.


Some research suggests that kin networks are especially vulnerable in disorganized and unsafe neighborhoods because., collectively, they do not contain sufficient resources to withstand pressures of a "constant barrage of claims and requests" (Furstenberg, 1993, p. 239). In the context of inadequate and underfunded social services, many African American kin networks have stretched "scarce resources beyond acceptable limits" (Neighbors, 1997).

The specific patterns of resource exchange depend highly upon certain characteristics of the members of the kin network, including the kinds and amounts of human capital (such as education and job skills), economic capital, and social capital (most broadly, relationships within and outside of the family that facilitate action) that they possess as individuals (Coleman, 1988). Among networks that are homogeneously poor with low levels of various kinds of material, economic, and social resources, the potential for resource exchange will be low. In many communities with a high concentration of poverty, resource exchange also is thus bruited because low-income African Americans tend to socialize and interact with similarly disadvantaged individuals within their immediate social environment (Cherlin, 2002; Fernandez & Harris, 1991).

Overall, there is an inverse relationship between level of support needed and support received by kin members (Chatters, Taylor, & Neighbors, 1989; Dressier, 1985; Hatchett, Cochran, & Jackson, 1991; Klebanov, Brooks-Gunn, & Duncan, 1991; Wacquant & Wilson, 1989). Individuals who have lower incomes are likely to have smaller networks, to perceive lower levels of family solidarity and closeness, to have less contact with network members, to report they received help less frequently or have never received support, and to have social ties with individuals who have equal or less human and economic capital than they. Individuals with less formal education as well as those with lower income also receive support less frequently from family members (Ball, Warheit, Vandiver, & Holzer, 1980; Roschelle, 1993, 1997; Taylor, 1988; Taylor, Jackson, & Quick, 1982). Even with strong emotional ties to members of their kin networks, some African Americans with lower incomes report receiving less instrumental aid than those with higher incomes (Ball et al.; Hatchett & Jackson, 1993; Hatchett, Veroff, & Douvan, 1995).

African American single mothers report receiving less support from their kin networks than do married women (Hogan, Eggebeen, & Clogg, 1993; Jayakody, Chatters, & Taylor, 1993) and less than white single female household heads (Hofferth, 1984). Although single mothers may have large social networks, their networks tend to contain fewer actual kin members than those of married women who may count, for example, in-laws as members of their kin networks. This is a disadvantage as family members are more likely than nonfamily network members to provide instrumental support that is so important in daily efforts to make ends meet (Dominguez & Watkins, 2003). Even when single mothers receive what they regard as adequate instrumental support from family members, the help may be accompanied by tension resulting from problems in their relationship. For example, kin networks of unmarried teenage mothers are "socially and emotionally deficient and plagued by poor primary relationships" (Cramer & MacDonald, 1996, p. 161); they may result in assistance that feels more stressful than supportive (Kaplan, 1997; McDonald & Armstrong, 2001).

One of the commonly presumed benefits of participating in kin networks is greater access to various types of child care and child-rearing assistance (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1986). However, even when living in extended households, African American single mothers reported receiving insufficient help with child care and other household responsibilities from family members (Wilson, Tolsan, Hinton, & Kiernan, 1990). In addition, informal care by relatives may be of lower quality than other formal types of child care (Clarke-Stewart & Allhusen, 2002; Galinsky, Howes, Kontos, & Shinn, 1994) and less reliable. In Iversen and Armstrong's (2006) study of family poverty and work, one African American single mother who relied completely on her mother for child care while she worked observed: "When my mom gets sick it really puts a damper on things. I was this close to not being able to work this weekend and I needed to work to pay my rent" (p. 81).

Another function traditionally performed by kin networks is formal and informal kinship care. In 1997, 1.8 million children lived with family members other than their parents, about half a million in kinship care through formal child welfare systems (Ehrle, Geen, & Clark, 2001). However, kinship care is associated with numerous risks, many resulting from poverty (Berrick, Barth, & Needell, 1994). Children in kinship care are more likely to reside in disadvantaged households--about 41 percent in families with incomes below 100 percent of the poverty level--with food insecurities and in which caregivers have lower levels of education and employment (Ehrle & Geen, 2002; Ehrle et al., 2001; Geen, 2003). Children who are placed with relatives also receive fewer child welfare and social services than children in other forms of substitute care (Ehrle & Geen). This situation is especially problematic as older kinship care providers such as grandparents often face serious physical and mental health difficulties that are exacerbated by the demands of caring for young children (Collins, 1990; Kelley, Whitley, Sipe, & Yorker, 2000). One study of relative caregivers receiving child-only Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits reported even younger relative caregivers have poorer health than noncaregiving counterparts. Indeed, "caregivers under 60 have abnormally poor health" (Generations United, 2003, p. 2).

Residential proximity also influences patterns of giving and receiving support (Brown & Gary, 1987; Hatchett et al., 1991; Jayakody et al., 1993; Roschelle, 1993, 1997; Rossi & Rossi, 1990). The farther away kin members move from one another, the less likely they are to participate in various kinds of resource exchange (Roschelle, 1993). Specifically, monetary exchanges and child care assistance among network members decrease with physical distance and with less frequent contact (Brown & Gary; Rossi & Rossi, 1990; Wellman & Gulia, 1999).

Although greater physical distance among network members is associated with less active exchange of various types of resources, challenges may arise when kin members live together. Because housing costs can be prohibitive and public housing often is unsafe or unavailable, many poor families co-reside or "double up." Seventy-three percent of households comprising two single mothers with children are African American and are at the highest economic risk of all extended household types (Winkler, 1993). Although co-residing can help families financially, relationships can be strained by lack of privacy, overcrowding, demands of child rearing, and sharing scant resources (Chase-Lansdale, Brooks-Gunn, & Zamsky, 1994; Dominguez & Watkins, 2003; Jayakody & Chatters, 1997; Macpherson & Stewart, 1991; McDonald & Armstrong, 2001; McLoyd, 1990; Wakschlag, Chase-Lansdale, & Brooks-Gunn, 1996).


Clearly there are both potential costs and rewards for participating in kin networks. Whereas kin networks can fill some individuals' needs at any given time and so "spread the burdens of poverty," sharing scarce individual and collective resources may contribute to sustaining disadvantage over time, serving to maintain poverty from generation to generation (Cherlin, 2002; Dominguez & Watkins, 2003; Menjivar, 2000; Nelson, 2000). Continuing obligations to share, especially material resources, may limit individuals' capacity to invest in their own and their children's upward mobility. As Rainwater (1970) observed, decisions about such sharing of resources are influenced by the informal but powerful mutual expectations that kin network members exert on one another.

Within each kin network there are patterned expectations about how and from whom resources are requested and received and to whom they are offered (Bengston, Rosenthal, & Burton, 1996; Lindblad-Goldberg, 1987; Neighbors, 1997; Nelson, 2000; Stack, 1974; Tracy, 1990). The ability of a network member to fulfill these normative expectations influences members' attitudes toward participating. Whether members feel satisfied with kin relationships is affected by not only the degree to which they receive support, but also how well they are able to give support in return (Antonucci, Fuhrer, & Jackson, 1990). Nelson (2000) found that "in short, to the extent that single mothers could describe their exchange relationships with others as being governed by the self-imposed expectation that they would give back as much as they had received, they could sustain an image of themselves as independent agents in their own lives" (p. 297). Consequently, those members whose needs are greatest face the dilemmas both of having to reciprocate the support they badly need and of feeling the discomfort potentially of not being able to honor normative expectations. The expectation of participating reciprocally in mutual aid is especially important for African Americans because of traditional norms that encourage family members to keep their resources open by offering money, child care and child keeping, housing, and other forms of support to one another (Malson, 1983; Martin & Martin, 1978; McAdoo, 1982; Testa & Stack, 2002).

Thus, it is important to consider the various ways in which poor African Americans experience disadvantage as well as advantage as members of kin networks. Family members may feel encumbered by obligations to their extended families. Within networks, some individuals report feeling used by those members who take advantage of them, feeling conflict over the use or need of aid, and experiencing disagreement among members regarding parenting and child-rearing practices (Chatters &Taylor, 1990; McAdoo, 1982; McLoyd, 1990; Neighbors, 1997; Stevens, 1988). A recent study found that some minority low-income single mothers feel manipulated and "fear inconsistent support" by members of their networks (Dominguez & Watkins, 2003).

Some people drain the resources of the network, whereas others disproportionately are called on to give more resources than they receive. At both ends of this spectrum of resource exchange, the material and psychological costs as well as benefits depend somewhat on how closely participants are able to act in accordance with the perceived norms of their kin network (Lindblad-Goldberg, Dukes, & Lasley, 1988; Nelson, 2000; Schilling, 1987; Tracy, 1990).


African Americans historically have relied on kin networks to supplement insufficient resources among other functions. Although participation widely remains a vital part of family life, decades of community poverty and generations of family poverty undermine effective mutual care among many kin networks, especially those that are homogeneously poor in resources. It is well beyond the scope of this analysis to suggest comprehensive solutions to the complex array of consequences of this functional deterioration so deeply tied to poverty. Rather, we argue for the incorporation of explicit assessment of kin networks in all arenas and levels of practice that, in principle, look to the family as a source of myriad resources for enhancing clients' well-being. Any mismatch between the expectation of viable kin support implicit in social welfare policies and programs and the actual capacity of kin networks to care for their members increases the vulnerability of poor families. We identify kinship care and child day care as critical examples of such a potential mismatch. This information is important to identify gaps in resources as well as points of intervention to enhance existing network strengths.

Psychosocial assessments routinely examine at least some aspects of the structure and function of clients' families. In addition to the standardized intergenerational genograms that are somewhat generic in composition (Hartman, 1995), social workers should use other tools (see Hardy & Laszloffy, 1995; Mailick & Vigilante, 1997; Watts-Jones, 1997) that include racially and culturally specific content and are based explicitly on the client's own definitions of kin (Tracy, 1990). In addition, assessments of kin networks should also explore the relational aspects of giving and receiving assistance. Social workers should ascertain: Do kin members have material or psychological resources to share? If so, who is willing to share them? Is the burden of giving too onerous? What are the mutual expectations for reciprocity, and how are these costs perceived? These answers will inform more realistic decisions about who may provide assistance without overburdening any individual member or the network of kin and, importantly, will identify needs for resources within a network of care.

Such in-depth assessment of kin resources is crucial in providing care for children. Although keeping children with their families is an important goal, it is critical to mitigate the risks when kin members with limited resources commit to caring for a child in need of placement. Current policies and programs should ensure that kinship care providers receive greater financial assistance and have access to all services that are available to non-kin providers through child welfare systems. These services must include medical, psychological, and social support for adults facing the stressors of caring for children whose needs may tax their capacities to provide good care.

Likewise, the quality of day care provided by willing kin should be improved through higher levels of reimbursement (for example, through vouchers) and through increased regulatory oversight and support of their capacities to provide competent and reliable care. In short, the natural functions of kin providing collective care for children must be supported more formally, especially when those collective resources are scarce.

The continuing commitment of African American kin members to care for one another despite the challenges of individual and community poverty is a testament to the intrinsic importance of kin networks today (Miller-Cribbs, 2004). Social workers should be vigilant in identifying functional vulnerabilities with the objective of supplementing the capacities of kin networks to provide mutual support for their members. This objective is consistent with the norms of most kin networks and increasingly with the expectations of our social welfare system.

Original manuscript received December 9, 2005

Final revision received January 24, 2007

Accepted February 16, 2007


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Julie E. Miller-Cribbs, PhD, MSW, is associate professor and assistant director, School of Social Work, University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, 4502 East 41st Street, Tulsa, OK 74135; e-mail: Naomi B. Farber, MSW, PhD, is associate professor, College of Social Work, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
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Author:Miller-Cribbs, Julie E.; Farber, Naomi B.
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Date:Jan 1, 2008
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