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.

What we did know of a certainty was that the deepest and most useful inquiry into those mysteries was not the musing of starchy social scientists armed with shallow surveys and census data but the fiction of William Faulkner, in such immortal works as Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, whose advantages were keen observation, social conscience, and intuitive human sympathy. Historians generally do better with the history of slavery, because they’re less immodestly prescriptive, employing “slave narratives” and other documents. But even historians are limited by the trickery of human memory and by the scarcity of literacy under slavery, and are as scattered leaves on the floor of a vast and silent forest.

Moynihan was at his most useful when, in later years, he grew skeptical of the power of social statistics to identify, let alone relieve, the sufferings of an “underclass.” Moynihan came to doubt the capacity of social science (and government policies resting on it) to “solve” intractable problems—a useful stride away from the rather giddy reformist optimism of the early 1960s. By the mid-1980s his conclusions were even bleaker. He occasionally cited, with apparent agreement, Peter Rossi’s so-called Iron Law of Evaluation: “The expected value for any measured effect of a social program is zero.”

Which is not to say that the Moynihan Report itself was inconsequential or misleading. The least that can be said four decades later is that it was prescient and that the worrisome trends it identified in the indigent urban black family have grown even more adverse—in some part because the national attention was deflected or discouraged. Patterson deftly situates the report in its time, which proved friendlier to dispute (and anger, including the absurd charge that Moynihan and his analysis were “racist”) than to action. It would be a long time before sufficient calm settled over the urban issue to permit dispassionate inquiry of the sort Patterson accomplishes.

In the summer of the report’s appearance, the disastrous Watts riots broke out in Los Angeles. President Johnson, feeling the disorders a slap in the face, receded from his zeal. His reaction, and that of other disillusioned reformers, perhaps echoed the waning paternalist mentality which had not absorbed the hard lesson that no good deed goes unpunished. Moreover, the summer of 1965 witnessed the first major escalation of the American military involvement in Vietnam, and Johnson was soon distracted from the goals he had enunciated at Howard and the ameliorative optimism that drove them. Add to this a decade of political reaction, “stagflation,” and budgetary stringency, and little further explanation of the inefficacy of Moynihan’s cri de coeur is needed.

One wry lesson of l’affaire Moynihan is ancient and biblical: Prophets are often unhonored in their own bailiwicks. In this case, the cost of inattention has been significant. The designated victims of “social pathologies” often seem to make a twisted virtue of their alleged shortcomings. A complacent deficit of education, ambition, stable marriage, responsible child care, and other features of inner-city life has continued and deepened, leaving one to ponder, again, the words of frustration and warning Moynihan wrote in a followup magazine article in September 1965:

From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder—most particularly the furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure—that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved.

Must one add, Q.E.D.?

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.