For the 50th Anniversary of the Moynihan Report, this briefing paper was prepared as part of an online symposium Moynihan+50: Family Structure Still not the Problem for the Council on Contemporary Families, and jointly published by CCF and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).
Few research documents in recent history have made as smashing an impact as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s study of the black family fifty years ago. The report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, was written by Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor, as a fast-track shortcut to force the Johnson Administration to take immediate action to improve the plight of poor black Americans through federally financed anti-poverty programs. Dismayed by the fact that more than a third of African-Americans lived in poverty, Moynihan intended the report to stimulate efforts to achieve economic and social equality.
Yet by framing the report as a description of the breakdown of the black family, Moynihan ended up fueling a bitter controversy about family forms and gender roles instead of contributing to a constructive discussion of how to address the need for more black jobs. He argued that “at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family,” which he described as a “tangle of pathology.” Tragically, the main impact of the report was to initiate a huge debate about family life in black America, while doing little to strengthen anti-poverty programs.
Moynihan made two errors of analysis. First, he traced the prevalence of single-parent households in the black community to the experience of slavery, which, he contended, resulted in the absence of strong family traditions on plantations. Not only did white masters discourage or forbid marriages; they also split up couples by selling one partner into slavery elsewhere. Their actions demeaned the status and stature of black men, creating a disorganized “matriarchal” culture of fragmented families.
In the first instance, Moynihan ignored history when he traced the prevalence of unmarried families in Northern ghettoes back to the ongoing legacy of slavery. As soon as Emancipation occurred, millions of black couples flocked to churches to get married. The ways that children, aunts and uncles and husbands and wives worked to piece together a living, the collective struggle to build houses, farm the land, get an education – all these have been noted by scholars as one of the signal strengths of black life once freedom was achieved. By placing all the blame for black family issues in the 1960s on the institution of slavery, Moynihan ignored the specific conditions that created growing numbers of single-parent families in northern black neighborhoods in the mid-20th century.
Second, the report’s claim that “broken” families were the central cause of black poverty massively oversimplified the complex relationships between socioeconomic trends and changing family forms, as outlined in the accompanying report by sociologist Philip Cohen and economist Heidi Hartmann and her colleagues. By attributing black poverty to the dearth of married-couple, male-headed families in northern ghettoes, Moynihan seemed to suggest that if blacks would only get and stay married they would cease to be poor, an absurdity that paved the way for later attempts to substitute marriage promotion for job creation.
Tragically, Moynihan’s ignorance of history and confusion of cause and correlation deflected attention from the real issue Moynihan was concerned with – focusing federal monies on urban jobs for blacks – and fanned instead a rancorous, racially-charged dispute over family values that continues to deform our discussion of poverty policy.
Since the 1960s, we have witnessed the growth of a much more sizeable black middle and professional class – largely a function of the 500 per cent increase in black college graduates that occurred after enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting rights Act. But a huge proportion of black people remain in poverty, and as the accompany essay by Cohen et al. shows, inequality of socio-economic opportunity has also been rising among all racial-ethnic groups and family forms.
It is time for us to get back to the original intent of the Moynihan report: to answer the question of how we should act as a people and a government to address the problems of poverty and inequality. Moynihan himself answered that question in a speech he wrote for President Lyndon Johnson to deliver in June 1965 as a commencement address for Howard University:
“Jobs are part of the answer….Decent homes in decent surroundings and a chance to learn–an equal chance to learn–are part of the answer. Welfare and social programs better designed to hold families together are part of the answer. Care for the sick is part of the answer. An understanding heart by all Americans is another big part of the answer.”
It is a sad irony that Moynihan’s report has provided so many politicians with an excuse to avoid implementing the solutions that Moynihan himself supported.
William H. Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, Duke University, emeritus; former Dean of the Faculty, Duke University; former president, Organization of American Historians. For more information contact Dr. Chafe at firstname.lastname@example.org