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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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.