Two Cheers for the Moynihan Report . . . Or One

Knowing what we know today about family breakdown among Americans and across the modern industrialized world, it seems that Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family: The Case for National Action mistakes the particular for the general and might reflect a misunderstanding of the decline of the family. Moynihan’s 1965 Report emphasizes the ways in which Black poverty, poor educational achievement, and crime—and the consequent lack of economic opportunity—are traceable to the deterioration Black Americans’ family structure. This decline is, in the Report’s view, traceable in turn to other contingent features of their experience in America, including the movement from rural Southern areas to urban centers and, most prominently, the lingering oppression from former practices of racial subordination.

While one can find few words in Moynihan’s Report that “blame the victims,” he and his Report were castigated as racist, naïve, tyrannical, and worse. For treating family break up and its profound effects on life, Moynihan should be honored as having accomplished the first task of statesmanship: observing the world with clear eyes and telling the truth about it. No one could ever gainsay his intellectual courage and probity as he was disowned by his superiors and reproached by Black activists.

Moynihan should also be honored for understanding the place and limits of policy in rectifying this profoundly difficult problem, as Professor Greg Weiner emphasizes in his account. While the document culminates in a “call for national action,” it expects only modest results from governmental action.

For all his courage, insight, and apparent statesmanship, Moynihan placed the emphasis on the Negro family at a moment when the wheels came off the family generally. His doing so set the national debate on a course that emphasized race as a factor instead of family corrosion generally, deflecting from such weighty matters as modern feminism and the desire for individual autonomy.

Not all of the Report’s words ring true:

The white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability. By contrast, the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban areas is approaching complete breakdown. (p. 5)

The Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great number of Negro women as well. (p. 29)

The white family, despite many variants, remains a powerful agency not only for transmitting property from one generation to another, but also for transmitting no less valuable contracts with the world of education and work. (p. 35)

On the other hand, it is rich enough to provide a theory of family decline apart from race.

Moynihan delves into the question of how slavery and its legacy led to the troubles in the Black family. Slavery generally “lowered the need for achievement” among slaves, since they would reap none of its rewards. This predicament was especially true among males, whom whites oppressed, insulted, and rendered useless to marriage. Humiliating men and disabling them from providing food and protection for their families, slavery and Jim Crow worked “against the emergence of a strong father figure.” Thus there had long been a stronger tradition among Blacks of the strong mother-child bond and matriarchal rule.

Its section on “Unemployment and Poverty” also showed that black men can no longer provide for their families. Men are either 1) replaced with welfare payments, which tended to break up the families at a high rate; 2) resented by their families as failures, or 3) decent enough providers, falling comparatively behind their fellows because of educational constraints. Remove the need for the man or hamper his ability to provide for and lead the family, and his attachment to the family erodes. Men must be wanted, and families decline when men are, either by the state or by female independence, rendered superfluous.

At the time Moynihan wrote his Report, this mechanism was working most obviously among American blacks, but within 20 years the corrosion of the sexual constitution at the root of the family would be present everywhere in the modern world.

It is not clear how Moynihan views this sexual constitution, and this leads to a tension in his view of the world. Weiner sees this tension as reflecting Moynihan’s “learned insight” on which prudence is based. I am not so sure. Moynihan embraces old wisdom that would support the importance of male pride in the family when he says that “the very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four-star general, is to strut.” The male delights when he needs to be needed and the family turns this tendency to the general advantage of service. Or so it would seem.

Yet Moynihan seems to think there is nothing essential in this arrangement:

There is, presumably, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangements.

So could the family be molded in any particular way, depending on the dreams of the makers of culture? Does biology incline men one way, and women another, and limit the acceptable range of family options? Moynihan seems to be very much the social scientist in how he formulates the problem at this juncture: human beings are the clay molded by social arrangements, whose web of relationships might be rearranged depending on cultural conditions.

One must go further. Moynihan is again very much the social scientist in calling the family’s decline a “tangle of pathology.” In this, his Report bears the markings of nearly every public attempt of the modern era to convince society to take family breakdown seriously. (Black) family breakdown is associated with all sorts of socially undesirable outcomes. Consider the value-free, passive-sounding social scientific language that the Report borrows from E. Franklin Frazier:

As a result of family disorganization a large portion of Negro children and youth have not undergone the socialization which only a family can provide. The disorganized families have failed to provide for their emotional needs and have not provided the discipline and habits which are necessary for personality development. Because the disorganized family has failed in its function as a socializing agency, it has handicapped children in their relations to the institutions of their community. Moreover, family disorganization has been partially responsible for a large amount of juvenile delinquency and adult crime among Negroes.

The Report includes other pathologies such as low educational attainment, higher narcotic use, unemployment or underemployment, poverty and intelligence scores. So we have the social science pattern for all family studies: identify a measurable indicator of family breakdown (for example, fatherlessness or illegitimacy) and show its correlation with social pathologies (for example, crime). In this vision, the family is a passive agent, acted upon by forces beyond the control of its members, not a responsible agent forging its own way.

This commitment to human passivity—human beings as dependent variables—is one of the most corrupt and corrupting elements of the social scientific outlook evinced by Moynihan and his Report. He embraces the premises of his later Leftist critics, namely that the disintegration of the Black family is the result of conditions of poverty and racism. “White America must accept responsibility,” the Report declares, Black poverty and family decline flow “from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man.”

Whites must absolutely claim their share of responsibility for Black family breakdown, and for the reasons Moynihan suggests; however, the quick collapse of family structures everywhere in the modern world suggests that more is at work than white racism.

The Report is shy on the question of Black responsibility in making choices or finding solutions—the only position that would be amenable to a statesmanlike solution based in culture, values, and limited government. Every time victimhood is emphasized, agency and responsibility are under emphasized—and any solution depends on that.

Those who do not like social science findings simply ignore them, assuming that they are ephemeral studies on our way to building a better world. One can see this tendency in the immediate aftermath of the Moynihan Report. After the torrent of abuse directed at Moynihan and the Johnson administration by radicals, President Johnson scheduled a conference on Black poverty. The White House then postponed the conference and held a planning session for it. Moynihan, assistant secretary for policy in the Johnson Labor Department, was persona non grata at this meeting, which Progressive forces turned into an instrument rejecting what seemed to be Moynihan’s conclusions in favor of more traditional family arrangements. “All families,” the planning panel declared, “should have the right to evolve in directions of their own choosing . . . and should have the supports—economic and non-economic—to exercise that right.”

We have loads of evidence that Moynihan then and forever afterward rejected such loosey-goosey thinking, and that he insisted on the cultural prerequisites for a thriving family culture. As he wrote in a letter to Mario Cuomo in the late 1980s, “There are simply limits to what can be achieved by hierarchical government organizations.” He also, in public statements, always showed that he was a man of the Left who, nevertheless, saw enemies to his left. This is why Moynihan is and should be admired by liberty-lovers and conservatives then and now, Professor Weiner as well as me.

However, what Weiner fails to grasp is that Moynihan shared the views of the social engineers on his left. He wanted to go slower, not go back. He wanted national action at a careful, not a reckless, speed. He wanted to proceed on facts and evidence; the radicals on hopes. Yet each wanted to proceed. As Moynihan wrote looking back,

Those of us who began writing about these [social policy] matters in the 1960’s were fully in agreement with all that liberalism was attempting. But we began to worry as to whether we would bring it off. This kind of critique was much too often greeted as a renunciation of goals rather than an inquiry as to means.

For all of his talk about the limits of social policy, he was not, to say the least, scrupulous to note those limits while he served New York in the U.S. Senate. I conclude therefore that the limits that Moynihan recognized were limits of contemporary knowledge and technique. Unlike the radicals, Moynihan thought it convenient for liberalism to keep conservatives around, so that the latter could keep liberals honest (something the conservatives lacked the clout to do in the 1960s and 1970s). Honest social reform and reconstruction are what Moynihan stands for.

There is a terrific tension in this position, one that is revealed in the liberal approach to the family. To engage in social engineering, one must push the limits to find out what the engineers can do. Moynihan is an honest and occasionally skeptical social engineer. The radical social engineer is transgressive, pushing the limits with heedless confidence that his vision can lead the way to a better place. The radical and the skeptic alike see the social world as up for “reconstitution” and “reconstruction.” They see untold possibilities in the proper exertion of governmental power informed by the best social science and the deepest social imagination.

If this is the case, the grounds for Moynihan’s skepticism or honesty are always shaky. The honest reformer insists that policies be informed by knowledge of ever-changing human limits; the skeptic is often betrayed by the application of governmental engineering informed by science. Moynihan is caught with his pants down, insistent about the limits but embarrassed by his inability to articulate them with finality, and saddled with a recognition that past reforms have changed those limits.

Might there be a form of social organization beyond the family that could meet the child’s emotional needs? Might there be alternative ways of organizing the family in a matriarchal way, or might there be ways of satisfying the needs of children outside or beyond the family? Moynihan would no doubt be skeptical that such things had been found, but his social scientific orientation could not foreclose the possibility that they could be found or would be found in good time. So he could do little to resist the radicals.

Honored for his honesty, he ultimately could not, on his own principles, account for that honesty or the limits that it reflected. His Report is something for which he should be honored, as a public-spirited effort to identify the leading edge of what became a civilization-wide crisis. His view of the world, however, does not provide a way out.