MIAMI (Reuters) - When Paulette Richards’ kids grew up and left home she thought she was done parenting. Instead, she has joined the growing ranks of black U.S. grandparents raising grandchildren because their own children can’t -- or won‘t.
The Miami woman’s story illustrates a debate about whether black American parents take enough responsibility for raising their children that has spilled into the U.S. presidential campaign through comments by civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
It also sheds light on how complex factors including home foreclosures, lack of health insurance and high incarceration rates combine to put pressure on many inner-city families.
Few hard figures exist for grandparents raising grandchildren but 59 percent of black households with children have just one parent, according to U.S. census data in 2006. That’s about double the figure in the overall population.
Obama, who could be the first U.S. black president, drew fire from Jackson this month by urging black parents to play a more constructive role in their children’s lives.
“No matter how many 10-point plans we propose or how many government programs we launch, none of it will make any difference if we don’t seize more responsibility in our own lives,” Obama, whose Kenyan father played little role in his life, said in a speech.
Government also bore responsibility for fixing social problems, Obama added in the speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
It was a reprise of a message he has repeated to black audiences during the campaign and that often draws applause.
Jackson, a standard-bearer of the black community for decades, said in remarks he did not realize were being taped by a TV network that Obama was talking down to black people. The incident, for which Jackson apologized, made it easier for Obama to differentiate himself from Jackson, analysts said.
“It’s potentially beneficial to him (Obama) in terms of ... being seen as someone who is concerned about family values, strengthening families and parenting,” said Alan Abramowitz, politics professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
“Being seen as willing to ... say that the black community has to take some responsibility for these problems is a position that appeals to a lot of black voters and to ... moderate whites who might be on the fence,” he said.
The debate over personal responsibility in the black community has rumbled for decades.
Sociologists cite a number of causes for higher rates of black single parenthood stretching back to the forced break-up of many black families during slavery.
The struggle to raise her grandchildren, pay bills and stay healthy has left Richards, 48, who lives in Miami’s downtrodden Liberty City neighborhood, at the breaking point.
Richards, who recently separated, first raised her own three children as well as three of her murdered sister’s children.
Now she is raising the oldest two of her 10 grandchildren because their father -- her son -- was incarcerated. Their mother, who also spent time in prison, has children by another man and plays little role in their lives, she said.
For years, Richards juggled work and raising her grandchildren, aged 13 and 11, but recent surgery left her unable to work and hard-pressed to pay her mortgage.
Lacking health insurance, it was difficult to get medical follow-up. Lacking money, she plans to celebrate two birthdays this week with a cake but nothing else.
“It’s unbelievably hard,” said Richards, who has worked as a home helper, cook and cleaner.
Community workers in Liberty City said soaring gasoline prices and rising home foreclosure rates had made things worse.
As many as half of black households in the neighborhood were headed by a grandparent, according to Sushma Sheth, director of programs at the Miami Workers Center, a leftist community organization. Sheth cited anecdotal evidence.
In many cases, mothers and children moved in with a grandparent because they were effectively homeless, she said.
“There is more than one responsibility. There is the responsibility of the individual and of the society to the individual,” Sheth said.
Editing by Michael Christie and Xavier Briand