The Moynihan Report Is Turning 50. Its Ideas on Black Poverty Were Wrong Then and Are Wrong Now.

African-Americans’ family structure is not the “master problem” of racial inequality in America.

Daniel Geary

(Marion S. Trikosko / Wikimedia Commons)

Whenever conservatives argue that the main barriers to racial equality are cultural factors within the African-American community such as the high rate of female-headed families and out-of-wedlock births, they often cite Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 government report, The Negro Family. The Moynihan Report, as it’s more commonly known, is a Frankenstein’s monster that conservatives resurrect every time Americans are confronted with the consequences of racial and class inequality.

Moynihan, from the start, contradicted his case for liberal social policies by identifying family structure as African Americans’ “master problem,” the root cause of their self-perpetuating “tangle of pathology."

Despite the fact that the report is now half a century old, today’s conservatives have used the report much as their forerunners did when it was released shortly after the Watts Uprising. The Right argues that Moynihan presciently revealed that African-American inequality is rooted primarily in family structure; thus, only moral revitalization — not economic redistribution and a strong social safety net — can ensure black progress.

The conservative response to the gross racial injustices recently highlighted in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere have proven no exception: Jason T. Riley of the Wall Street Journal, for instance, observes that Moynihan showed ghetto outcomes” result from ghetto culture,” not from historic and ongoing oppression. Conservative institutions such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institution, and the Manhattan Institute now celebrate the report’s half-century anniversary.

For 50 years, conservatives have used the report to rationalize the persistence of inequality in the post-civil rights era. Citing Moynihan in 1965, William F. Buckley declared, leaders of the Negro people must take on the responsibility of helping their own people and dispelling the illusion that what is left to do is primarily up to the white man.” At an American Enterprise Institute event commemorating the report’s thirtieth anniversary in 1995, William Bennett concluded, The most serious problems afflicting our society today are manifestly moral, behavioral and spiritual, and therefore remarkably resistant to government cures.”

Like Dr. Frankenstein, who did not anticipate his creation’s destiny, conservative appropriation of the Moynihan Report is deeply ironic because Moynihan wrote it as a liberal official in President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. The civil rights movement had successfully pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would soon follow. But, as Moynihan understood, African Americans sought not only legal and political rights, but also a guaranteed basic standard of living. By highlighting black family instability,” Moynihan hoped to draw attention to the deeper social and economic inequities faced by African Americans, especially the dearth of job opportunities for black men that prevented them from serving as family breadwinners. Conservatives shamelessly ignore these elements of the report when celebrating it.

There are those today — such as the authors of the Urban Institute’s The Moynihan Report Revisited, prominent sociologist William Julius Wilson, and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times — who seek to revive the report as a liberal document. Moynihan, they say, actually argued for a strong welfare state that helps keep families intact; his good intentions have simply been misunderstood.

But liberals ignore how successfully conservatives have used this contradictory document to their own ends at their own peril. This is not a monster that liberals can control. Highlighting family structure is just as likely to rationalize inequality as it is to dramatize it.

Moreover, the report remains deeply ambiguous and flawed. The very fact that it appeals to both conservatives and liberals suggests its ideological promiscuity. Moynihan, from the start, contradicted his case for liberal social policies by identifying family structure as African Americans’ master problem,” the root cause of their self-perpetuating tangle of pathology.” By so doing, Moynihan implied either that African Americans must create and preserve nuclear families through their own efforts or that racial inequality was so entrenched that government could not effectively alleviate it. Paradoxically, a report meant to convince Johnson to take national action” offered a powerful justification for government inaction.

Wresting the report back from conservatives furthermore limits today’s ambitions to the faulty aspirations of 1960s liberalism. We don’t have to mischaracterize Moynihan as a racist or as a proponent of draconian welfare reform to see the problems with his analysis.

As many of Moynihan’s critics at the time recognized, focusing on African Americans’ behavior overlooked systemic racism. It labeled families that deviated from the patriarchal nuclear family model pathological.” Moynihan, worried about the pernicious effects of matriarchy,” even advocated taking jobs away from black women to give them to black men. His most concrete policy suggestion for providing employment to black men was to recruit more into the armed forces, then fighting a war in Vietnam — one kind of jobs program, deadly and highly unjust, that this country has proved willing to provide for African Americans and poor people.

Endorsements of the Moynihan Report also risk ignoring the facts revealed by a half-century of social science research. As a recent report by the Council on Contemporary Families shows, while the number of single-parent families has risen among all Americans, many of Moynihan’s other conclusions have been disproven. For example, the increase in single-parent families has not led to a rise in juvenile crime rates as Moynihan predicted. We should study the adverse effects of unemployment and poverty on families, but Moynihan is clearly not a reliable guide to the subject.

Liberal supporters also join conservatives in repeating a common — but mistaken — understanding of the Moynihan Report controversy that blames intemperate leftists for misunderstanding Moynihan’s intentions. On Meet the Press this May, for example, Tom Brokaw blamed black leaders” for having vilified” Moynihan instead of seizing the moment” in 1965. Actually, some civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr., concurred with parts of Moynihan’s diagnosis. But the real issue is not whether or not one agreed with Moynihan, but our society’s failure — then and now — to devote the resources necessary to redress centuries of racial oppression and fairly distribute our wealth. Blaming the Left for failing to accept Moynihan’s conclusions perversely holds civil rights activists accountable for contemporary inequalities.

Racial and class inequality are again on the national agenda as they were when Moynihan wrote his report. Yet the document is hardly a good starting point for discussing these problems. The uncritical celebration of Moynihan’s analysis threatens once again to distract from the real causes of inequities and injustice in our society. As the Moynihan Report turns 50, we should let it enjoy a long-delayed natural death.

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Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Trinity College Dublin and the author of Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy (University of Pennsylvania Press, June 2015).
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