Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Poverty & The Moynihan Report

During the Presidency of, first John F. Kennedy and then Lyndon B. Johnson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was employed as the Assistant Secretary For Labor charged with developing policy for the "war on poverty." At the time, as it is today, poverty was a national problem, but also a particular problem for blacks. Fifty years ago this month, Moynihan issued a report, The Negro Family: The Case For National Action. For the temerity of saying that the problems of black poverty were cultural and systemic, Moynihan was savaged as a racist by the many on the left and his report ignored.

Fifty years later, many of the problems identified Moynihan do not merely remain, they've gotten worse. The attempt to solve the problem of poverty without addressing squarely the systemic problems underlying poverty has failed, and not just for blacks, though they were Moynihan's focus. In virtually all cases, the systemic problems are the same -- a breakdown in two parent families.

Several good columns and articles look back on the report today. First, there is Nicholas Kristof writing at the NYT, When Liberals Blew It:

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.”

Liberals brutally denounced Moynihan as a racist. He himself had grown up in a single-mother household and worked as a shoeshine boy at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street in Manhattan, yet he was accused of being aloof and patronizing, and of “blaming the victim.” . . .

From George Will, The Prescience of Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

. . . The broken correlation of improvements in unemployment and decreased welfare dependency shattered confidence in social salvation through economic growth and reduced barriers to individual striving. Perhaps the decisive factors in combating poverty and enabling upward mobility were not economic but cultural — the habits, mores and dispositions that equip individuals to take advantage of opportunities.

This was dismaying because governments know how to alter incentives and remove barriers but not how to manipulate culture. The assumption that the condition of the poor must improve as macroeconomic conditions improve was to be refuted by a deepened understanding of the crucial role of the family as the primary transmitter of the social capital essential for self-reliance and betterment. Family structure is the primary predictor of social outcomes, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan knew in 1965.

Fifty years ago this month, Moynihan, then a 37-year-old social scientist working in the Labor Department, wrote a report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," that was leaked in July. The crisis he discerned was that 23.6 percent of African-American births were to unmarried women. Among the "tangle" of pathologies he associated with the absence of fathers was a continually renewed cohort of inadequately socialized adolescent males. This meant dangerous neighborhoods and schools where disciplining displaced teaching. He would later write: "A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority ... that community asks for and gets chaos." . . .

From City Journal, The Black Family: 40 Years Of Lies (reposted from 2005)

. . . By now, these facts shouldn’t be hard to grasp. Almost 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. Those mothers are far more likely than married mothers to be poor, even after a post-welfare-reform decline in child poverty. They are also more likely to pass that poverty on to their children. Sophisticates often try to dodge the implications of this bleak reality by shrugging that single motherhood is an inescapable fact of modern life, affecting everyone from the bobo Murphy Browns to the ghetto “baby mamas.” Not so; it is a largely low-income—and disproportionately black—phenomenon. The vast majority of higher-income women wait to have their children until they are married. The truth is that we are now a two-family nation, separate and unequal—one thriving and intact, and the other struggling, broken, and far too often African-American.

So why does the Times, like so many who rail against inequality, fall silent on the relation between poverty and single-parent families? To answer that question—and to continue the confrontation with facts that Americans still prefer not to mention in polite company—you have to go back exactly 40 years. That was when a resounding cry of outrage echoed throughout Washington and the civil rights movement in reaction to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Department of Labor report warning that the ghetto family was in disarray. Entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the prophetic report prompted civil rights leaders, academics, politicians, and pundits to make a momentous—and, as time has shown, tragically wrong—decision about how to frame the national discussion about poverty. . . .

Fifty years on it's time to admit that the attempt to solve the problem of poverty largely through welfare has failed. While the welfare system has provided a necessary safety net, it has not broken the cycle of poverty that effects far too many in our nation. That is going to require a new effort. And that effort should begin with dusting off the Moynihan report.

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