The Moynihan Report at 50
Timothy S. Goeglein
Tim Goeglein is Vice President of External Relations for Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to "Helping Families Thrive." Its web site is at www.focusonthefamily.com.
For most of the 1990s, I was privileged to work in the United States Senate for one of the best men in American public life, Dan Coats of Indiana. I began as his deputy press secretary, and later became his communications manager and press secretary. It was a joyous professional ride over nearly a decade, and I was honored to cross over with some of the largest personalities in the history of that august institution: Bob Dole of Kansas, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia. With only one exception, Dole, who is 91, they are all dead now, their legacies the subject for the history books.
But in my time as a staffer, there was no man, other than Coats himself, for whom I garnered more respect than a senator whose worldview, in elemental ways, was almost exactly the opposite of my own: Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York. Even before coming to the senate, he had enjoyed an illustrious career, working for U.S. presidents of both political parties, and serving twice as a U.S. ambassador - first in India, and then famously as America's representative to the United Nations. His tenure at the latter accorded him the honorific as perhaps the most effective person the United States has ever sent to that global institution on the East River in Manhattan. Moynihan was fleet of foot and silver of tongue in an otherwise tangled international arena - lithe, eloquent, an orator of gifted, if eccentric, locution.
During my tenure in the Senate, I made it a special point to follow Moynihan's career closely because he seemed to me the rarest thing in the American political arena: a public intellectual who earnestly valued the contest of ideas and welcomed the often spirited and unpredictable thrust and parry that comes with it. Though a liberal Democrat who had made his peace with large government, he also acknowledged the limits of political power.
Also, Moynihan always seemed to find the right balance between constituent services and watching out for New York on the one hand, while on the other hand finding a way to become a central player in the public policy realm far beyond his home state. He would regularly author and publish important, scholarly articles in small journals and magazines that ended up having a national and international impact, and often on topics and policies involving the American family. He had a gift for spotting domestic trends, for good and for ill, and galvanizing others to take special interest in what he had found, and none more so than in family concerns.
He had been raised in Hell's Kitchen in New York City, a tough and gritty part of town; he had made his way toward a Ph.D. in sociology, and eventually became a noted and famous professor at Harvard. He was a supple, elegant, and gifted thinker and writer, drawing from empirical evidence the most astonishing and even prophetic conclusions based on data that others were not researching or had overlooked.
But the most controversial study he ever wrote, the one that propelled him to national attention, happened exactly 50 years ago this year - an event worth recalling because it focused, with diamond-like intensity, on the direction of the American black family and the conditions under which children were being raised. His research would eventually elucidate the reasons for the heady breakdown of much of the nuclear family and marriages in the five decades to follow.
He wrote in 1965 that:
The fundamental problem is that of family structure. The evidence - not final but powerfully persuasive - is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.
On the day his report was released, about one-quarter of black kids were living only with their mothers. Moynihan called this a crisis, as indeed it was, but 50 years on, the numbers are nothing short of astonishing: Between 70 and 75 percent of all black Americans are now born out of wedlock, a tripling of the trend Moynihan had spotted. More than half of Hispanic children are born out of wedlock now while more than third of white babies are born to unmarried mothers.
The goal of the Moynihan Report, he said, had been to begin a serious national conversation about the implications of those sizable numbers of out of wedlock births and what they said about the condition of the family and marriage going forward. In the intervening years, this avowed liberal Democrat, who adored Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy, was denounced as a racist with a hidden agenda, which was categorically untrue and even absurd.
His fellow liberals believed that the social and cultural pathologies and problems Moynihan had identified could be effectively addressed by a major, historic expansion of the federal government. President Johnson's War on Poverty, launched in 1964, was defined, in part, as a series of programs that would effectively intervene with family and marriage breakdown, helping to arrest, reverse, and eventually nearly eradicate the problems that Moynihan had identified.
But Moynihan was skeptical, and with good reason. Government, he reasoned, could not tuck a child into bed at night; government could not save a marriage; government could not help a broken family fall in love again. These were, he said, primarily cultural problems and not economic or political problems, an insightful assertion in an era when trust in large government was broadly embraced by members of both political parties.
The Manhattan Institute's Jason Riley, who has researched and written about the historic relevance of The Moynihan Report, says Johnson's Great Society programs began a devastating pattern in America:
Marriage was penalized and single parenting was subsidized. In effect, the government paid mothers to keep fathers out of the home - and paid them well. For decades, research has shown that the likelihood of teen pregnancy, drug abuse, dropping out of school, and many other social problems grew dramatically when fathers were absent.
Riley cites a 2002 study done by researchers William Comanor and Llad Phillips of The University of California, Santa Barbara. Their conclusions are succinct and sobering:
. . . the most critical factor affecting the prospect that a male youth will encounter the criminal justice system is the presence of his father in the home.
The tragedy of the Great Society is the manner in which it helped catalyze the destruction of much of the family. In almost all categories that Riley researched:
. . . including income, academic achievement, and employment [black American families have] stagnated or lost ground over the past half-century.
Some 51 years after The War on Poverty was launched with great fanfare, American taxpayers have spent $22 trillion - $920 billion in the last fiscal year alone, according to The Heritage Foundation - yet the results speak of near-failure in many areas of major federal expenditure.
For instance, the poverty rate for African Americans is about 30 percent, and four of every ten black children are raised by single moms living at or below the poverty line. Statistics are dramatically different for black Americans who are married: the poverty rate is below ten percent. Yet millions of kids are experiencing shattered lives because they are growing up in broken homes, and almost all of them without their biological dads.
Lest there be any debate that these trends have only adversely impacted black people, nothing could be further from the truth. According to the 2010 census, for the first time in American history, more than half of all babies born to American women 30 years of age and under were born out of wedlock. The Centers for Disease Control in March found that 25 percent of all American babies born since 2010 were to cohabitating couples, the highest ever in any American governmental study, and twice as high as just ten years ago. A Wall Street Journal analysis put those numbers in stark terms: "Cohabiting parents now account for a clear majority - 59 percent - of all births outside marriage."
America is experiencing both a plague of fatherlessness and a collapse of marriage among a key demographic. The Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector writes:
In 1964, 7 percent of U.S. children were born outside marriage. Today, that number is 41 percent. Society is dividing into two castes. In the top half, children are raised by married couples with college education; in the bottom half, children are raised by single mothers with a high school degree or less.
Rector says there are more than 80 federal government welfare programs and almost all have one thing in common: they "provide very real financial incentives for couples to remain separate and unmarried."
Moynihan once observed that the principal difference between liberals and conservatives was that liberals believed if you wanted to impact the course of American culture, you had to impact politics first; conservatives believed, he said, that if you wanted to impact politics, you had to impact culture first. That is a probing, relevant insight into how we are to address and attempt to solve some of the most important, and seemingly intractable, social problems America faces today.
One important lesson of the past half century is that counterproductive cultural habits can hurt a group more than political clout can help it,
Riley writes. "Moynihan was right about that too."
Indeed he was, and devastatingly so. As a nation, we cannot continue on this present course of family fracture and marriage upheaval. It would seem to be an unsustainable course.
In 1995, looking back at his four decades in public life, Moynihan was asked what had been the biggest transformation he had observed:
The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.
So how to think about the moral revolution we are living through a half-century after Moynihan published his famous analysis? One thing is crystalline: The cultural crisis will never be fixed by money alone. The family is foundational, and a bulwark against further erosion. It seems to me that culture still leads, and is upstream from what is happening in American politics of either party. Moynihan was right to assert that there is a direct tie between the decline of family and the social pathologies of the nation.
The Manhattan Institute's Heather MacDonald has eloquently echoed Moynihan, advocating for a father-centric prescription:
The disintegration of the two-parent family is the greatest long-term threat to American prosperity and cultural health. . . . But more consequential than the risks to individual children is the cultural pathology of regarding fathers as an optional appendage for childrearing. A society that fails to teach its young males that they are unambiguously responsible for their offspring will have a hard time inculcating other fundamental duties. Unfortunately, family breakdown isn't amenable to public-policy solutions, since it results from something more profound than misguided tax structure or welfare rules . . . the biggest culprit is feminism's devaluing of males and the conceit that "strong women" can do it all. . . . Family decline will be stemmed only when it is widely understood that care provided by both biological parents is the most powerful social and economic advantage that any child can enjoy.
Morals and manners - more than government or legislation - primarily shape the direction, scope, and currents of great nations. Any hope for renewal and regeneration will likely arise from our families with active and involved dads, churches that foster family cohesiveness, and various ministries and non-profits that make strong, nuclear families a priority.
The legacy of The Moynihan Report 50 years later confirms what his great friend George Will said about "the ecology of a nation," namely that "the most important business of [this] generation is the raising of the next generation." *