Moynihan’s Message

Fifty years ago, a young scholar at the Department of Labor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. “The racist virus in the American blood stream,” he said, “still afflicts us,” and “the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” Mr. Moynihan had discovered that nearly a quarter of African-American births were “illegitimate.” Only a minority of African-American children who were 18 at that time had lived all their lives with both parents.

Mr. Moynihan’s report was misunderstood by both the left and the right. Some found it offensive to African-Americans and defended the one-parent family, arguing the “new family” was not necessarily limited to married men and women. Today’s intellectuals, shocked by civil disorder in Ferguson and Baltimore, have rediscovered the truth of Moynihan’s main point: troubled neighborhoods filled with jobless men and broken families are incubators of hopelessness.

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The numbers have only grown worse since Mr. Moynihan raised hackles in 1965. According to the Urban Institute, the number of African-American children born to unmarried mothers has tripled since the report. Now nearly three quarters of African-American births and three tenths of white births occur outside marriage. Children who grow up in families headed by single women are more likely to do poorly in school and drop out, to be arrested and to become single parents themselves.

The Russell Sage Foundation reports African-American men between 25 to 54 are effectively “missing” because of homicide—over 90 percent of the victims are murdered by other African-American men—or because of the nation’s vast social experiment with mass incarceration. Almost one in 12 African-American men is behind bars. The number for white men is one in 60.

Many will review today’s urban conditions and, citing Moynihan, declare that it is an interventionist government weakening families that leads to continuing dysfunction; others, also citing Moynihan, will argue that only a comprehensive government response can shore up both families and communities. The truth is that strong families make better futures for children, but so do strong communities—communities where people have educational and job opportunities that allow them to escape cycles of poverty, communities where police truly come to protect and serve and are not perceived as a hostile occupying force.

Young men in Baltimore describe life as a constant running from police and the city itself as a “Murder Land” they want to leave. They join gangs to escape loneliness, make friends and even experience love. President Obama, in a discussion with African-American and Hispanic students at Lehman College in the Bronx, poignantly asked, “‘Do we love these kids?’”

It is a fair question, especially as crises within African-American neighborhoods continue to be discussed as if they were something happening somehow elsewhere. To speak of “two Baltimores” or “white communities” and “African-American communities” may focus analysis in sociological studies like Mr. Moynihan’s and speak a regrettable truth about continuing U.S. segregation, but it is fatal to the solidarity Christians are called to embrace. There is no crisis in “their” community in Baltimore that is not a crisis for “our” community. If African-American families are being broken down by poverty, by inadequate educational opportunity, by inequities in the application of the law and in criminal sentencing, by police brutality and “black on black” violence, that is a crisis that needs to be raised up in compassion and concern before the whole community. It should provoke a call to action that is not undermined by ideologies and rhetoric that belittle communal obligations.

Mr. Moynihan eventually tried to answer the urban crisis in his time with New Deal-inspired policies aimed at full employment and even proposed a minimum family wage to end poverty once and for all. How should the nation respond now? A comprehensive review of police policies and procedures and efforts to equalize educational opportunity make a good start. And creative consideration of ways to free the nation’s incarcerated men, captives of shortsighted policies of the past, are surely welcome.

Urban churches should embrace this crisis as an opportunity to renew their identities as opponents of racism and companions of the poor, with a theology of the family to guide their thinking. Mr. Moynihan would no doubt have welcomed the words of Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori. Freddie Gray’s death, the archbishop said, “symbolized the rawest of open wounds, and the only salve that will heal them is that of truth: truth about what happened to Freddie, truth about the sin of racism that is still present in our community, and truth about our collective responsibility to deal with those issues that undermine the human dignity of every citizen.”

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Henry George
2 years 6 months ago
When the Congressional Hearings for the "Great Society" were being held, near the end, after all the Sociologists/Political Scientists had given their views an elderly "Coloured Preacher" - that is how he described himself - spoke and said: If you give people, poor or not, money to live by and do not hold them responsible for their actions - you will destroy them. Giving more money to young mothers for a 2nd/3rd child with no father involved, not requiring any work for welfare or attendance at training schools or colleges will only lead to trouble. He was ignored by those intellectuals who thought they knew what was best. We are paying the price and have paid the price dearly for our intellectual arrogance.
J. Calpezzo
2 years 6 months ago
We are also paying a price for the Koch Bros demonization and character assassination of President and Mrs. Obama, giving today's racists open license to spew their venom.
Chuck Kotlarz
2 years 4 months ago
“…not requiring any work for welfare or attendance at training schools or colleges will only lead to trouble.” Nobody perhaps has better proof of the Preacher’s words than conservatives. Black Americans residing in conservative dominant states are 40% less likely to have bachelors, graduate or a professional degree than Blacks in liberal dominant states. Does any voting block better grasp democracy than minority voters?
Richard Booth
2 years 5 months ago
In my opinion, Dr. Moynihan, a sociologist, was one of the most insightful legislators I have seen in my lifetime. As if he were in a university classroom, he spoke the facts, which many did not like, particularly anti-intellectuals and concrete thinkers. I appreciate your mentioning him in your entry.
norman ravitch
2 years 4 months ago
Today he would be called a racist. It is never racist to tell the truth. Did I read somewhere that the Truth will make you free?
Richard Booth
2 years 4 months ago
Interesting comment, Norman. I wonder if the "America" writers might develop an article dealing with the nature of the relationship between truth-telling and political correctness. I am curious what the clerics would do with this issue.
J Cosgrove
2 years 4 months ago
For a couple discussions on Moynihan see: When Liberals Blew It http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/12/opinion/when-liberals-blew-it.html?_r=0
Fifty years ago this month, Democrats made a historic mistake. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time a federal official, wrote a famous report in March 1965 on family breakdown among African-Americans. He argued presciently and powerfully that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable. “The fundamental problem,” Moynihan wrote, is family breakdown. In a follow-up, he explained: “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 large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families ... 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.”
He was ostracized by the liberals for his frankness http://www.city-journal.org/2015/bc0403fs.html
Today, 50 years after its issuance, some liberals “bravely” acknowledge that 1965’s so-called Moynihan Report, in which the future senator warned about the dire future consequences of the collapse of the black family, was a fire bell in the night. But at the time, and for decades to come, Moynihan was branded as a racist by civil rights leaders, black activists, and run-of-the-mill liberals. “One began to sense,” Moynihan wrote, that “a price was to be paid even for such a mild dissent from conventional liberalism.”
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 4 months ago
Moynihan was not the first to note this particular problem and its consequences. W.E.B. DuBois writes about it in very similar terms in his 1903 book, "The Souls of Black Folk."

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