March of 1965, Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan printed and distributed a report he wrote titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. The report made him famous. However, Moynihan forever remained embittered that what became “The Moynihan Report” was never fully understood or acted upon.
Amid today’s massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations, filled with demands for redress of past and present injustices against Black people, it might be useful to revisit The Moynihan Report. The Report’s suggested remedy will sound outdated to today’s readers, possibly because society chose to take the path Moynihan warned against.
The Moynihan Report is a well-written, well documented treatise meant to counter what Moynihan saw as the misguided policies of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The report presents statistical data and interprets the data with care. It is a shot across the bow: continue ignoring the potent positive role of the traditional American family and suffer the consequences.
Indeed, for anyone paying attention, the centerpiece of Johnson’s Great Society, the War on Poverty, amounted to nothing more than war on poor families.
As an aside it should be noted that Pat Moynihan spoke of dysfunctional families and poverty from personal experience. Although he enjoyed an exceptional career as counselor to Presidents, ambassador to India and the United Nations, and U.S. Senator from New York, his parents were of modest means. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his excellent article The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration, goes as far as to say that Moynihan “was the product of a broken home and a pathological family… A cultured civil servant not to the manor born…”
War on families: a legacy of slavery
The Moynihan Report notes that while slavery existed in many parts of the world, slavery in America was especially onerous. Under law and custom, slaves were chattel, not entitled to education, religious practice, manumission, and most importantly a family of their own. Such conditions rendered slaves dependent on their masters, unable even to purchase their freedom or find solace in family attachments. Moynihan felt that neither emancipation nor government-granted civil rights could erase this awful legacy.
Emancipation granted freedom, but segregation ensured inadequate education and scant opportunities for advancement. Legislation granted civil rights – those rights government chooses to grant — but did nothing to fully acknowledge that all people are endowed from birth with the unalienable rights of personal liberty and personal responsibility.
Moynihan believed that devoid of a deep sense of personal liberty and personal responsibility, many Black people failed to form strong families or focus on personal advancement.
The bifurcation of American Blacks
In all communities there are those who succeed despite soul-shattering challenges. Moynihan saw a bifurcation between a rising Black middle class and an increasingly disadvantaged Black “lower class.”
There is considerable evidence that the Negro community is in fact dividing between a stable middle class group that is steadily growing stronger and more successful, and an increasingly disorganized and disadvantaged lower class group. There are indications, for example, that the middle class Negro family puts a higher premium on family stability and the conserving of family resources than does the white middle class family.
Moynihan’s concern in his Report is with the “disadvantaged lower class” Blacks. His focus is not on poor whites, Latinos or other persons of color.
His remedy for the intractable poverty and chaos Moynihan perceived was to build strong patriarchal family units, in which fathers were the primary breadwinners and mothers the primary caretakers of offspring.
The role of the family in shaping character and ability is so pervasive as to be easily overlooked. The family is the basic social unit of American life; it is the basic socializing unit. By and large, adult conduct in society is learned as a child.
A fundamental insight of psychoanalytic theory, for example, is that the child learns a way of looking at life in his early years through which all later experience is viewed and which profoundly shapes his adult conduct.
The remedy society chose
While Moynihan persistently advocated for strong family units, administrations during his time in office helped the devastation of Black families with policies that fostered dependence on public assistance, absentee fathers, and incarceration. No need for fathers to stick around when moms and children will be cared for via numerous public assistance programs. No need to worry about poor education and work opportunities when there are plenty of prisons to isolate those who turn to crime as a last resort.
And plenty of prisons we have, as noted in the Prison Policy Initiative.
For four decades, the U.S. has been engaged in a globally unprecedented experiment to make every part of its criminal justice system more expansive and more punitive. As a result, incarceration has become the nation’s default response to crime. States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2018. June 1918.
Such response results in absent fathers or mothers, unemployment due to conviction records, and broken families. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons estimates the current prison population is 38% Black. The U.S. Black population is around 13%. The U.S. “default response to crime” does disproportionate harm to Black families.
After the Great Society troubles remain
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted 55 years ago, government-granted civil rights and public assistance programs focusing on individuals rather than families would do little to improve the lot of the poor and Black. Malevolent efforts such as the war on drugs and mass incarceration further destroy economic and social mobility for the poor and Black.
Intermittently, there are uprisings prompted by particularly egregious events perpetrated against Black people. Today, protests rage throughout the U.S. and the world in response to the May 25th killing by police of George Floyd. Floyd was unarmed, the arrest that led to his killing was for an alleged non-violent incident (suspicion of purchasing cigarettes with a forged $20 bill), and the manner of his killing was barbaric (police’s knee pressing on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds). George Floyd, a Black man, was one of the latest victims at the hand of police.
Protesters today and in the past demand police accountability, even police “defunding.” They demand “social justice” and “equity.” But challenges remain, even as politicians expand the traditional largess in the model of Johnson’s Great Society.
The Moynihan Report, old fashioned and outdated as it sounds, might be worth revisiting.