The Magazine

Families Matter

The message of the ‘Moynihan Report’ remains urgent.

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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We recently reached a landmark in the checkered annals of social science: the 47th anniversary of an initially obscure paper that few living Americans have heard of, and fewer read. That epochal document has been known since the summer of 1965 as “the Moynihan Report,” when it was so dubbed by the late Robert Novak. It warned of dire conditions within the impoverished urban “Negro family” and predicted worse to come.

Photo of Moynihan

I knew and admired its author, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for 24 years a senator from New York and before that an academic star and ambassador to the U.N. And why not? He wrote an amusing introduction to one of my books. When my newspaper, the Washington Star, collapsed in 1981, he offered me a perch on his staff. Thanks to him, I have in safekeeping the huge American flag that he caused to be flown over the Capitol in my honor when I took leave of daily journalism. But then, as the author of this important study rather unkindly remarks, Moynihan was “an Olympic-class” flatterer and I claim no immunity to blarney.

Moynihan as I knew him was, however, more than a butterer of inflated egos. He was a keen and original student of social structures and of American and European history; and like all sentient Irishmen, he was a lover of the English language and an eloquent and inventive user of it. Moynihan wrote his storied report while serving as a subordinate Labor Department official in the Johnson administration, and it provided the basis for a memorable presidential speech at Howard University in 1965. Johnson addressed what Moynihan viewed as the plight of indigent urban black families and their male children. Moynihan argued that this imperiled social unit was trending toward “matriarchy” (this was, of course, just before the women’s lib movement crested, when such a designation was less explosive than it would become), breeding unruly young males, often out of wedlock, who were inevitable prey to a “tangle of pathology.” Surly, unschooled, unambitious (at least in conventional middle-class terms), drug-trading and drug-using, making a perverse cult of tangles with the law—at the very least, this developing “underclass” was severely alienated.

The brief report (fewer than 100 pages in its government-printed version, crammed with charts and graphs) became a delayed-action bombshell. Some weeks after Johnson’s Howard address (itself universally applauded when he pronounced that the “freedom” conferred by civil rights legislation was not enough, so that the nation must set its sights on “equality as a fact and equality as a result”), Moynihan was smoked out as the primary thinker behind it. If the present historical study, absorbing and penetrating, suffers from any flaw at all, it is the author’s stern resolve to examine every significant item in the flood of demographic and sociological echoes to which the report gave rise.

It could be argued, as Moynihan’s critics did not fail to do, that his jeremiad regarding poor, fatherless black boys was a shadow autobiography, drawing its energy from personal experience. Indeed, Moynihan posed when it suited him as a slum-toughened Irish kid from Hell’s Kitchen, sometime shoeshine boy and longshoreman, lifted by his own bootstraps. There was truth in this life history, but as James Patterson establishes, it was actually an inverted family romance. Moynihan was born to middle-class parents, functioning professionals, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, though it is true that his father was a drunk whose desertion of the family when the future senator was 10 pushed his mother into occasional wandering, hardship, and dependency.

Forty-seven years later, it is also arguable that the Moynihan Report erred in two significant assumptions. One was that the family “dysfunctions” it identified could be traced to the wanton breakup of slave families—an idea that more exacting historians (notably Eugene Genovese and Herbert Gutman) would soon question. The other was to adapt, too confidently, quasi-medical terms of social analysis, a temptation in all sorts of punditry, academic and journalistic, at once preemptive and deterministic.

The fluctuating academic dispute over the impact of slavery on the black family tended to overlook what thinking white Southerners of my own generation knew anecdotally, or should have known. We had daily contact, often intimate within the limits of paternalism, with black people. We knew, and often were cared for, by strong and affectionate black women; and we knew their children also, after a fashion. We knew far less about black men or black family structures, their intimate connections, and their patterns of coping, and still less about how deeply those veiled patterns were rooted in the slave past, which was rarely if ever mentioned in white company.