Evaluating the Moynihan Report on the Negro Family 50 Years Later

A half-century after its publication, the Moynihan ReportThe Negro Family: The Case for National Action—endures. It does so for many reasons, its prescience and courage chief among them. But the Report is more than a faithful contemporaneous portrait, and deeper than an accurate projection. It is a political document in the noble sense, reflecting searching and enduring principles about the nature of society and the place of political institutions within it.

Assessments of the Moynihan Report at this milestone should therefore be more than historical. Its method of capturing truth in generality would enrich social science in 2015.  Its insights could guide those who research and write as a part of today’s renewal of interest in poverty policy. And it raises cogent questions about the limits of either social science or policy.

In a new book, American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I call Moynihan’s complicated view of politics “Burkean liberalism,” which is to say he maintained a faith in the ameliorative capacities of government even as he appreciated its limits.

He believed that government could help create conditions in which families could flourish. An important aspect of the problem was clearly economic, for poverty strained families, and another was political, since at the time welfare programs supported only broken families.

That was on the one hand; on the other, Moynihan did not believe government could or, crucially, should replace the private systems of morality on which families depended. The erosion of the family as the organizing, socializing unit of society—a phenomenon that now cuts across racial lines and consequently cannot be imputed to the unique strains Moynihan identified in African American families—suggests an inescapably moral dimension to the problem.

Moynihan repeatedly said he bent backward in the Report to avoid locating blame. With the American family in a state of decay in which all are involved, and for which all would seem culpable, can we avoid it any longer?

The Report

Moynihan’s boss, U.S. Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, forwarded the Report to the Johnson White House with a cover memo describing its summary as “nine pages of dynamite on the Negro situation.” That much was certainly right. When the Report was leaked in a ham-handed effort, after the Watts riots, to show that the Johnson administration was on top of the crisis of race in America, Moynihan was almost instantly accused of racial bias, a charge that would dog him for years (and that would, also for years, stymie scholarship on the African American family through sheer intimidation).

Yet the Report—which was produced by Moynihan and his staff, but many phrases of which bear an unmistakable indication of its namesake’s pen—opens with quite the opposite of racial bias. Its first chapter, following an introductory warning of a “new crisis in race relations” precipitated by demands for not merely legal but full social and economic equality at a time when crumbling family structure inhibited their realization, begins by hailing the civil rights movement.

The Negro American revolution holds forth the prospect that the American Republic, which at birth was flawed by the institution of Negro slavery, and which throughout its history has been marred by the unequal treatment of Negro citizens, will at last redeem the full promise of the Declaration of Independence.

Yet this equality (more on which presently) would be difficult to realize for African Americans, divided as they were between a rising middle class whose families were stable, and an urban underclass in which families were deteriorating to the point of collapse. A quarter of marriages did not last. Nearly that proportion of births were illegitimate, and the same percentage of families were headed by women.

One result, Moynihan wrote, was a “startling increase in welfare dependency.” His friend James Q. Wilson dubbed the finding “Moynihan’s scissors.” Rates of unemployment and welfare receipt, which had been operating in unison, had now diverged, with welfare climbing even though more Americans had jobs.

Moynihan proceeded to a sweeping historical and sociological analysis of the African American family. The strain of chattel slavery in this country was uniquely dehumanizing, destroying the families that labored under it. Jim Crow was equally degrading, especially to male pride. The result was a matriarchal structure out of sync with a broader society dominated by male authority.

Meanwhile, Black Americans’ exodus from the rural South, in which family structures had been comparatively stable, to the urban North was as disruptive to Blacks as similar rural-urban migrations had been to Irish immigrants and other groups. The wage system further pressured African American families, which statistically tended to be larger, because wages were based on the number of hours one worked, not the number of mouths one fed.

Unemployment rates among African American men also were abnormally high given macroeconomic conditions. A folk myth held that poor families, whatever their other miseries, had the consolation of stability. The evidence did not bear this out, for it suggested a clear relationship between poverty and family corrosion.

The result was Moynihan’s famous or, to his critics, infamous “tangle of pathology”: from matriarchy, to delinquency and crime, to what may have disturbed the Report’s author most: a general sense of alienation from the socioeconomic system.

Thus the Report’s culminating call for a national policy whose contours the Assistant Secretary of Labor did not specify but whose declaration he felt would instigate action:

“The policy of the United States is to bring the Negro American to full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship. To this end, the programs of the Federal government bearing on this objective shall be designed to have the effect, directly or indirectly, of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family.”

Moynihan’s Method

The Moynihan Report was perceptive, meticulous, incisive: the work of a trained scholar at the peak of his craft. It also would not likely pass a dissertation defense before a social sciences faculty today. The reason is not merely the explosive conclusions Moynihan reached. It is the daring method by which he reached them. Moynihan used the kind of panoramic generalizations today’s scholars eschew to make the sort of bold declarations contemporary statesmen avoid. A productive politics depends on both.

The verb “to generalize” is so tainted that it requires an instantaneous apology. To say Moynihan generalized is not to doubt his empirical evidence. It was scrupulous. The Report is rich with data documenting the dissolution of the family. It is the historical narrative and sociological analysis contextualizing the statistics—the part for which Moynihan has probably been most, and most unjustly, vilified—that so penetrate, reaching broad conclusions in ways no longer permissible to either scholars or statesmen.

It would be difficult for Moynihan to press this case today, considering the sensitive nature of race and gender and, what is more, the changed standards of proof. They are not higher, merely different and in some senses diminished, for they value technicalities over truth—and they would be hard to overcome.

One can only imagine the demand for statistical evidence or case studies to back up such Moynihanian declarations as, “The very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four-star general, is to strut.” Or: “Country life and city life are profoundly different.” These are based on learned insight, not merely statistical regressions, and it is the former that rigid empiricism often excludes. Truth—the kind that resides in carefully arrived-at generalities and is not susceptible of particular proof in the way modern social science has come to understand it—can be lost in the bargain.

Yet politics depends on this kind of judgment. Years after the Report, U.S. Senator Moynihan of New York, playing on the academic cliché about publishing, noted that politicians could not afford the certainty on which professors insisted. “Speculate,” the political imperative ran, “or perish.”

Speculation, though, requires uncommon qualities. Courage is one, for those who generalize are exposed to disproof, either in the Lilliputian manner of rigid scientism—surely a bantam rooster can be found that does not like to strut, and there are no doubt case studies of four-star generals who are paragons of humility—or in the sweeping sense of being simply wrong.

The second quality is prudence, understood in its classical sense of phronēsis. To Burke, it was the “queen of virtues.” It does not mean mere caution. If it did, the Moynihan Report—which expelled its author into the political wilderness—would have been an act of singular imprudence. Prudence is, instead, a faculty of judgment. It encompasses the ability to absorb information but also to discern the deeper truth it conveys.

Moynihan, for example, could see demographic information on the shrinking life expectancy in the Soviet Union and predict as early as 1979 that the Leninist empire had a decade left to live. He could look beneath data on unemployment rates and welfare cases to the dissolution of the family, and through those trends to social disintegration.

To be sure, Moynihan was not always right. His direst predictions about the 1996 welfare reform proved mistaken (even if the boldest assertions of the law’s success have proved questionable, too). But no statesman of his time was more incisive more often. He was able to see beneath problems because he was a social scientist—a political scientist—in a noble sense that bridged the classical and the modern.

His facility with facts was unparalleled. He compiled case studies and ran regressions. But he also looked beneath this information. He connected dots. He drew conclusions about the past and rendered judgment regarding the future. The faculty this requires is prudence, but the activity itself is called generalizing. It has acquired a sordid connotation. That impoverishes scholarship and politics alike.

The Political Theory

The political theory of the Moynihan Report rotates around the principles of equality and subsidiarity.

The nature of equality, of course, is the rub: “The fundamental problem here is that the Negro revolution, like the industrial upheaval of the 1930s, is a movement for equality as well as for liberty.” These “twin ideals of American democracy” are neither the same nor even always compatible:

Many persons who would gladly die for liberty are appalled by equality. Many who are devoted to equality are puzzled and even troubled by liberty. Much of the political history of the American nation can be seen as a competition between these two ideals. . . .

Equality, according to Moynihan, would mean an economic distribution among African Americans comparable to an economic distribution among other groups. “The ideal of equality does not ordain that all persons end up, as well as start out equal.” But neither does it mean equality of opportunity simply, which is what Whites had meant by liberty.

The single greatest barrier to a greater distribution of prosperity among African Americans was the corrosion of the family. Thus the Report’s second political ideal: subsidiarity, the principle that a problem ought to be addressed by the closest competent social institution.

Moynihan derived this idea from its source, Catholic social teaching, especially the papal encyclicals Quadragesimo Anno and Mater et Magistra, which he frequently cited. Catholic social thought played a vital role in shaping Moynihan’s lifelong devotion to the centrality of the family as a social institution. There was no substitute for its functions.

The Report explained: “The role of the family in shaping character and ability is so pervasive as to be easily overlooked. The family is the basic social unit of American life; it is the basic socializing unit.” This language found its way into the 1965 commencement address at Howard University that President Johnson based on the Report. Moynihan co-wrote it. Note how even social pathologies operate via subsidiaries, radiating outward from the family:

The family is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled.

Among the particular vices of American slavery was that it hardly permitted families to form. When the African American family did form on a large scale, during Reconstruction, it was under conditions of rampant inequality and intense hostility that were especially damaging to the force Moynihan thought inherently important to family structure: male authority. The charge of racism he was to face was probably as inevitable as it was unfair; and based on his observation concerning male authority, an accusation of sexism was added to the mix.

In a passage the Report quoted from E. Franklin Frazier, pathology again migrates from the family to the community and back during the sudden dislocation to the urban North. Wrote Frazier:

In many cases, of course, the dissolution of the simple family organization has begun before the family reaches the northern city. But, if these families have managed to preserve their integrity until they reach the northern city, poverty, ignorance, and color force them to seek homes in deteriorated slum areas from which practically all institutional life has disappeared. Hence, at the same time that these simple rural families are losing their internal cohesion, they are being freed from the controlling force of public opinion and communal institutions.

Moynihan’s subsidiarity was further evident in his belief that the family should be the unit of analysis in gauging economic and social health. Economic statistics that measured individual wellbeing could be misleading. The wage system, for example, “is conspicuous in the degree to which it provides high incomes for individuals, but is rarely adjusted to insure that family, as well as individual needs are met.” The Report thus concludes by calling for a national family policy: that is, one directed at the stability and health of the Black family, not the individual.

The Guaranteed Income

In search of such a policy, Moynihan was led to an idea Milton Friedman first proposed: a guaranteed income. James S. Coleman’s seminal study of educational opportunity, which concluded that family structure was the only variable with strong predictive power for educational outcomes, appears to have been a major influence on Moynihan’s thinking in this regard.

So was the failure of the services strategy of the Great Society, which Moynihan excoriated for taxing the poor in order to pay middle-class professionals to minister to them. This is not to be confused with the conservative allegation that the Great Society induced social pathologies, which Moynihan always rejected. (He was wont to point out that the Moynihan Report documented those disorders based on data series that began before the first shot in the War on Poverty was fired, and also that families were dissolving across all of the Western democracies, regardless of their welfare policies.)

Indeed, Moynihan, who saw poverty as a simple condition of not having enough money—something the federal government was reasonably good at raising and distributing—believed the Great Society failed to spend enough on the poor and, just as important, failed to spend it directly on them. He once noted that if a third of the federal outlays for the Great Society had simply gone to the poor, there would have been no more poverty in the United States.

Thus the guaranteed income. As President Nixon’s urban policy advisor, Moynihan nearly achieved it in the form of a “Family Assistance Plan” connected with work incentives: The amount of the wage subsidy would diminish but would not disappear as income rose. As Moynihan documents in his 1973 book The Politics of a Guaranteed Income, the proposal was suffocated between liberals who thought it too miserly and conservatives who thought it too generous.

Moynihan himself later abandoned the idea in response to controlled experiments that suggested it might actually accelerate family breakup. The question is whether he gave it up too readily, especially since some analyses have questioned the conventional interpretation of the data that showed the guaranteed income leading to family breakup.

The guaranteed income might be better in some respects than today’s alphabet soup of SSI, EITC, SNAP, TANF and other welfare programs. Its simplicity and transparency would limit government to its basic expertise in the collection and distribution of resources rather than in the micromanagement of people’s lives. It would accept poverty as something to be ameliorated rather than eradicated, thus avoiding the utopianism that has infected the antipoverty efforts of both parties. It would accept, as Moynihan did, social complexity rather than attempt to manipulate the terms of relief. Properly structured, it would incentivize work and family.

And the guaranteed income might offer other benefits. One is what attracted Friedman: treating the poor like adults rather than childish wards of the state. A guaranteed income, moreover, allows markets to operate by providing a genuine, transparent, and non-coercive safety net. It avoids the distortions that come with pressing private entities into service for the attainment of public goals. (A guaranteed income, for example, would make it possible for markets to set wages.)

It would, as well, reinforce subsidiarity in a double sense. First, there would not be state intrusion into subsidiary institutions, as is the case with making private charities the direct agents of public relief. Second, it would allow the poor, and especially the working poor, to distribute their own resources more broadly—and diversely—among these institutions.

But what would a guaranteed income do for families? To the extent Moynihan was right that fathers leave families (or do not form them) because of a combination of policy incentives, economic pressures, and the shame involved in losing their roles—either primary or shared—as breadwinners, a properly structured guaranteed income would, in theory, help.

It might not be enough.

The Moral Dimension

In 1969, delivering a commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, Moynihan reflected: “What is it that government cannot provide? It cannot provide values for persons that have none, or who have lost those they had.” Family is itself a value, and it rests on others: commitment, responsibility, suppression of immediate desires, subordination of oneself to others, deferral of the immediate to the ultimate.

It would be too much, and too harsh, to suggest that those in the tragic grip of broken homes have no values. But society provides a moral ecology in which families wither or flourish, and individuals make moral choices within that ecology. We may be losing the values we had.

If we assume that economics can worsen the situation, it follows that economics can help to relieve it. That family corrosion so starkly breaks down along class lines suggests as much. But economics cannot fix the problem wholesale, nor is it responsible for it entirely.

The statistics Moynihan identified for African American families in 1965 are worse for all families today. A comparable report written now would be titled simply “The American Family: The Case for National Action.” One implication is that Moynihan’s compelling historical and sociological analysis of the legacy of slavery and bigotry, as well as lingering racism, no longer explains the collapse of the family as a general sociological phenomenon.

The generality of the phenomenon today may suggest a latent, broader crisis that was merely accelerated and aggravated in the African American family by the unique factors Moynihan identified. That is to say, one possibility is that the American family generally was nearing this precipice; the unique strains of slavery and racism pushed the African American family to it quickly and more severely.

In any case, the broader crisis seems inseparable from values. This is not to say it is wholly determined by them. But a renewal of values is still an inescapable and essential element of the renewal of family. Government cannot do this. But neither, and this is crucial, is this an argument for quietism. Moynihan’s call to action was that “the programs of the federal government bearing on this objective”—that is, full and equal sharing in citizenship—have the objective of enhancing the stability of the family.

This is different from saying the federal government should ride a white steed to the family’s rescue. It is to recognize, as Moynihan did in his 1987 book Family and Nation, that some, and not a few, public policies affect the family. These should be undertaken thoughtfully and forthrightly. That does not make them panaceas, and they are not to be regarded as failures for not being so.

In one of his most famous aphorisms, Moynihan observed: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Fifty years on, the ever-relevant lesson of the Moynihan Report is that both truths are required.