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Moynihan Was Right

Half of all black men in the United States who are in their 20s and 30s and have not gone to college are noncustodial fathers. Half of these men drop out of high school and are jobless; six out of 10 have spent time in prison. Stephen Weisman’s recent book, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (Public Affairs), has brought back the ideas of a scholar who tried to warn us about this problem and failed.

Moynihan (1927-2003) was a Catholic public intellectual who, in his 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” argued that in the rise of single-mother families in ghettos there is a “tangle of pathology” (in part a legacy of slavery) that includes delinquency, unemployment, school failure and crime. The fatherless ghetto child learns that adult males are not expected to finish school, get a job, take care of their children or obey the law.


In the 1970s some liberal critics, feminists and African-American leaders pilloried Moynihan as a racist and sexist. In the 1980s, when the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks more than doubled to 56 percent, opinion began to shift toward Moynihan’s ideas. The National Council of Churches and leaders as diverse as Bill Cosby, William Julius Wilson and President Obama have acknowledged the problem.

Reversing this calamity requires an effort to rebuild the nuclear family, keep young men in school and get them into college. Today the fact that 70 percent of black children are born to unmarried mothers undermines the stability not just of African-American culture but of Ameri-can society at large.

Poison in Nigeria

Lead poisoning has killed hundreds of children under age 5 in northern Nigeria. The underlying cause is illegal gold mining. Seven villages in Zamfara state have been affected. There are high concentrations of lead in the gold ore. When villagers bring the soil home and sift through it looking for gold, they inhale the lead-laden dust and fall ill. The contamination came to light earlier this year during a yearly immunization program. Local health workers and physicians from Doctors Without Borders performed blood tests and found concentrations of lead 250 times the levels typically found in U.S. residential areas.

The people in the villages had been reluctant to speak about the illness for fear that government authorities would ban the mining, which they have now done. Some even denied that any children had died and instead blamed their illnesses on malaria. Doctors Without Borders said that denial of the problem had hampered timely intervention. When help did come, it arrived too late for many. The true number of illnesses and deaths may be even higher than reported.

The deaths reflect the poverty of inhabitants in an area where most villagers live by subsistence farming, which pays much less than illegal gold mining. Two of the United Nation’s eight Millennium Development Goals are eradication of extreme poverty and reduction of child mortality. The deaths in Nigeria are a reminder that efforts toward both goals must be intensified and that responsibility rests on the developing countries as well as the wealthy nations.

Britain Grows Less Defensive

Total U.S. defense spending now approaches—and by some analyses exceeds—$1 trillion a year. The United States remains engaged in wars it cannot afford, following an increasingly questionable strategy that could pave the way for future violence. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has agreed to “limit” future defense spending to just 1 percent above inflation. Yet with calls for restraint in federal spending echoing through the halls of Congress, why does the nation’s bloated defense budget remain politically sacrosanct?

Great Britain now offers a fiscal precedent, breaking through the iron triangle on defense. Their new anti-Keynesian budget trims government spending by about $130 billion, sharply reducing welfare benefits, raising the retirement age to 66 by 2020 and eliminating hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs. It will be a matter of some argument whether Britain’s take-no-prisoners approach to its budget deficit is the right way out of the global recession. (Results from Ireland’s austerity budget so far have not been promising). But one aspect of Britain’s colder eye on national spending is worth emulating: The British Ministry of Defense did not escape the Conservative budget axe; it was cut by 6 percent. In what The Economist dubbed a retreat “but not a rout,” Britain reduced the defense budget to 2 percent of its gross domestic product. That defense commitment is more in line with Britain’s European peers and less than half of the 5 percent of G.D.P. the United States still funnels into defense during a time of acute national need. Following Britain’s lead, the United States should devise a more proportionate defense policy. A budget that comprehensively protects American interests will prove the kindest—and wisest—cut of all.

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Tom Maher
7 years 11 months ago
RE: Moynihan was Right

Moynihan was profoundly right in his warnings of the very destructive impacts of the federal welfare legislation being considered in the late 1960s would have on American society especially on the structure of lower income families. Welfare was being designed around individuals without any provision to preserve a two parent family structure.  A single parent,  typically a women could apply and get welfare for herself and her children independent of her spouse.  The spouse wouild have to apply as an individual.  The law's incentives did not effectively provide for two-parent families. 

The immeadiate effect was to encourage the breaking up of two parent families.  Single parent families took off and have risen to as high as 70% levels for certain lower income groups.  Single parent families became a nationwide instituion with all its disadvantages due to the incentives of the law Moynihan criticized.   

The focus on the individual by this very liberal federal legislation allowed numerous able bodied men with college degrees to receive welfare upon request for indefinite periods.  But one of the worse abuses was the ease in which young women in their teens could create their own single parent family from genration to generation.  In a few decades multiple gneration of grandmother, mother and daughter single parent families became widespread throughout the coungtry.  The federal law became means dependent lifestyle and way of life without ever having to seek education, training a job or wider cultural participation in society.   The many horrible outcomes of this law was predicted by Moynihan.

The federal welfare law was finally radically reformed decades later in 1996 after the single parent family was  strongly and widely established as an American institution with its numerous severe disadvantages. 

Single parent families are usually subject to much greater emotional and finacial stresses that badly shortchanges children growing up in these families.   Ignoring Moynihans warning has created a log-term disaster created by ill conceived federal legislation.  

The irony is that Moynihan was always one of the most liberal people that ever existed  and not racits at all.   Too bad for America that people did not respect and listen to the well-founded warning of this most able person.

This is one of the earlier examples of political correctnes gone awry and producing long-term profoundly harmful results.  We need to allow people to speak and say what they have to say without the censorship of political correctness.  Jaun Williams is only the latest commentator to be censored by political correctness that forbids critical comments on public affairs that certain groups may not want to hear. We need critical commentary such as that of Moynihan to properly form public policy.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years 11 months ago

Secretary Gates is to be commended for trying to control the bureaucratic bloat and earmark tricks for nonbid contracts from the likes of Senators Dodd, Shelby, and the late John Murtha, etc. It is after all a government agency and virtually by definition inefficient and bloated. But the great expenses of the armed forces are payroll and benefits. For example, there have been no increases in copays for health insurance for 15 years and those costs have skyrocketed. Insurance benefits to retirees are going to be astronomical. Is America ready to support cutting these costs? And of course defense is not the greatest problem in the deficit explosion, medicare, medicaid, and social security are. Is America willing to support cuts in those elephants in the room? Which candidates have the courage to do what must be done in cutting expenditures?

Ana Blasucci
7 years 11 months ago
Regarding the current comment item, "Britain Grows Less Defensive" (Nov. 8, 2010 issue):
     Britain has long been a great ally... but what does she have to do with U.S. defense vis a vis her budgetary decisions?
     There is one criterion that legitimately dictates what is spent on the nation's defenses.  Its need for defenses!  (It could be argued that the US budget could be less if allies spent a tad MORE on defense - but that's an aside). 
     There can be any amount of honest disagreement on the specifics of what we spend on under the aegis of national security.  We are still the biggest target on earth, and, by default, are what we claim we cannot be; the world's '9-1-1' (including use of the military for peaceful relief purposes).
     A secure U.S. means a more secure world. 
     All this said, money  needs to be spent wisely, and one supposes that if all waste and redundancy could be cost-effectively tracked down and eliminated at the DOD, a budget freeze or even modest reduction might still be possible while not sacrificing security.
     You ask why this budget item is "politically sacrosanct."
It might be "sacrosanct," politically and really, because national security is the condition that secures and makes possible everything else we do.  It might be thought of as defending, at its logical conclusion, the right to life (against enemies and their depredations), always the first of all rights.


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