Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died in 2003, was a U.S. Senator from New York for four terms from 1977 to 2001. Before that, he was Ambassador to the United Nations. Before that, he was U.S. Ambassador to India. Back in the 1960s, he held various positions in the Kennedy and Johnson administraions. He was also a Ph.D. sociologist who among his writings included 19 books, leading the newspaper columnist George Will to remark (if I remember correctly) that Moynihan had written more books than most Senators had read.
But in discussing Moynihan\’s career, the talk inevitably at some point goes to a famous report that he authored a half-century ago in 1965 while working for the Office of Policy Planning and Research
in the Department of Labor, called \”The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.\” (The text of the report is available at the DoL website here, although the tables and figures are not.) Less than a year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Moynihan wrote in the introduction:
In this new period the expectations of the Negro Americans will go beyond civil rights. Being Americans, they will now expect that in the near future equal opportunities for them as a group will produce roughly equal results, as compared with other groups. This is not going to happen. Nor will it happen for generations to come unless a new and special effort is made.
There are two reasons. First, the racist virus in the American blood stream still afflicts us: Negroes will encounter serious personal prejudice for at least another generation. Second, three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment have taken their toll on the Negro people. The harsh fact is that as a group, at the present time, in terms of ability to win out in the competitions of American life, they are not equal to most of those groups with which they will be competing. Individually, Negro Americans reach the highest peaks of achievement. But collectively, in the spectrum of American ethnic and religious and regional groups, where some get plenty and some get none, where some send eighty percent of their children to college and others pull them out of school at the 8th grade, Negroes are among the weakest.
The most difficult fact for white Americans to understand is that in these terms the circumstances of the Negro American community in recent years has probably been getting worse, not better.
Indices of dollars of income, standards of living, and years of education deceive. The gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening.
The fundamental problem, in which this is most clearly the case, is that of family structure. The evidence — not final, but powerfully persuasive — is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling. A middle class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated. There are indications that the situation may have been arrested in the past few years, but the general post war trend is unmistakable. So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.
The thesis of this paper is that these events, in combination, confront the nation with a new kind of problem. Measures that have worked in the past, or would work for most groups in the present, will not work here. A national effort is required that will give a unity of purpose to the many activities of the Federal government in this area, directed to a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.
This would be a new departure for Federal policy. And a difficult one. But it almost certainly offers the only possibility of resolving in our time what is, after all, the nation\’s oldest, and most intransigent, and now its most dangerous social problem. What Gunnar Myrdal said in An American Dilemma remains true today: \”America is free to chose whether the Negro shall remain her liability or become her opportunity.\”
Anyone schooled in the ways of political correctness can predict what happened next, even if you have never heard of the Moynihan Report. Moynihan\’s analysis of the problem and his obvious sympathy with the plight of African-Americans addressing a legacy of government-sanctioned discrimination was ignored. Instead, he was harshly criticized for blaming the victims of discrimination and for being a racist. Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks describe the reaction in their essay \”Was Moynihan Right?\” in the Spring 2015 issue of Education Next. They write:
Moynihan’s claim that growing up in a fatherless family reduced a child’s chances of educational and economic success was furiously denounced when the report appeared in 1965, with many critics calling Moynihan a racist. For the next two decades few scholars chose to investigate the effects of father absence, lest they too be demonized if their findings supported Moynihan’s argument. Fortunately, America’s best-known black sociologist, William Julius Wilson, broke this taboo in 1987, providing a candid assessment of the black family and its problems in The Truly Disadvantaged. Since then, social scientists have accumulated a lot more evidence on the effects of family structure.
The same issue of Education Next includes a group of articles on the state of the American family, timed for the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan report. For example, James T. Patterson offers an overview of the Moynihan report itself, how it was received, and how Moynihan viewed the controversy. A list of the other articles is available here.
Several decades later, Moynihan eventually received considerable credit for the prescience and force of his 1965 arguments, and for his willingness to make those arguments while facing some very ugly rhetoric. But to my knowledge, at least, none of those who so enthusiastically strafed Moynihan\’s reputation in 1965 took any responsibility for an important subject being pushed off the national radar for the next two decades.
Moynihan\’s 1965 argument can be broken down into two parts: a claim that family structure was in the process of shifting dramatically, and a claim that this change was injurious to the life prospects of children. The first claim has copious support. The second claim is harder to demonstrate, because disentangling cause and effect is always tricky, but McLanahan and Jencks point to the recent evidence suggesting that it probably holds true as well.
As a starting point, here\’s some facts about changes in family structure as presented by McLanahan and Jencks. The percentage of U.S. children under the age of 18 living with an unmarried mother rose sharply from the 1960s up through the mid-1980s.
As they point out, these kinds of comparisons over time need to be made with care. For example, back around 1960 most children living with an unmarried mother had been born to married parents, but the couple had separated, divorced, or the father had died. In addition, in 1960 unmarried cohabitation was rare. Children living with an unmarried mother in one year were often not in that category a few years later, if their mother remarried. As time went on, children born out of wedlock became much more common and cohabitation became more common. In other words, the situation of living with an unmarried mother was not the same experience in 1960 as in 1970 or 1980. As one example, unmarried motherhood spread fastest among those with lower levels of education who were most likely to be in poverty. Also, as McLanahan and Jencks write:
The historical shift from formerly married to never-married mothers has meant that single motherhood usually occurs earlier in a child’s life. Mothers who marry and then divorce typically spend a number of years with their husband before separating. Today, many women become single mothers when their first child is born. The shift to never-married motherhood has probably weakened the economic and emotional ties between children and their absent fathers.
It\’s tricky to think about how growing up with a single parent might affect the life prospects for a child. For example, it would obviously be foolish just to compare children with single parents and children with two parents, because children with single parents are not an event that is randomly distributed across all other population characteristics. As one of many possible examples, single parents on average have lower education levels, so perhaps differences are traceable to the education level of the parent, not the marital status. Or perhaps a mother is less likely to marry or live with a father who she suspects might be a negative influence on their children.
We find strong evidence that father absence negatively affects children’s social-emotional development, particularly by increasing externalizing behavior. These effects may be more pronounced if father absence occurs during early childhood than during middle childhood, and they may be more pronounced for boys than for girls. There is weaker evidence of an effect of father absence on children’s cognitive ability.
Effects on social-emotional development persist into adolescence, for which we find strong evidence that father absence increases adolescents’ risky behavior, such as smoking or early childbearing. The evidence of an effect on adolescent cognitive ability continues to be weaker, but we do find strong and consistent negative effects of father absence on high school graduation. The latter finding suggests that the effects on educational attainment operate by increasing problem behaviors rather than by impairing cognitive ability.
The research base examining the longer-term effects of father absence on adult outcomes is considerably smaller, but here too we see the strongest evidence for a causal effect on adult mental health, suggesting that the psychological harms of father absence experienced during childhood persist throughout the life course. The evidence that father absence affects adult economic or family outcomes is much weaker. A handful of studies find negative effects on employment in adulthood, but there is little consistent evidence of negative effects on marriage or divorce, on income or earnings, or on college education.
What changes would help to address to the dissolution of the family that so many children experience as their day-to-day reality? In their Education Next essay, McLanahan and Jencks conclude:
Unmarried parents are not that different from married parents in their behavior. Both groups value marriage, both spend a long time searching for a suitable marriage partner, and both engage in premarital sex and cohabitation. The key difference is that one group often has children while they are searching for a suitable partner, whereas the other group more often has children only after they marry.
Changing this dynamic would require two things. First, we would need to give less-educated women a good reason to postpone motherhood. The women who are currently postponing motherhood are typically investing in education and careers. These women use contraceptive methods that are more reliable, and they use these methods more consistently. Postponing fertility in these ways would also have benefits for women who currently do not do so. They would be more mature when they became mothers, and they would probably do a better job of selecting suitable partners.
Nonetheless, postponing fertility will not solve the problem of nonmarital childbearing unless the economic prospects of the young men who father the children also improve. Women are not likely to marry men whom they view as poor providers, regardless of their own earning capacity. Thus, in addition to encouraging young women to delay motherhood, we also need to improve the economic prospects of their prospective husbands, especially those with no more than a high school diploma. This will not be easy. But it would improve the lives of the men in question, perhaps reduce their level of antisocial behavior, and improve the lives of their children, through all the benefits that flow from a stable home.
I know, I know: Easy to say, hard to do. But when the terrain is difficult, it\’s useful to know what direction to take.