Arts & Culture

Four decades later, scholars re-examine ‘Moynihan Report’

6 min read

Before he was a United States senator from New York, before he was ambassador to India, before he taught government at Harvard, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) served as assistant secretary of labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and it was in that capacity that he issued a report in March 1965 titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

Originally intended as an internal memorandum providing support for Johnson’s War on Poverty, the report asserted that a disturbing proportion of African-American families suffered from instability and breakdown, that this condition resulted in a cycle of joblessness and poverty, and that the root of the problem was the psychological and social damage caused by slavery.

Soon after being issued, the report was leaked to the press and immediately became the object of violent controversy. Critics accused Moynihan of attacking the black family, stigmatizing black men, and marginalizing black women. One such response to what came to be called “The Moynihan Report” was the book “Blaming the Victim” (1970) by William Ryan (who coined this still-popular phrase). On the other hand, prominent black leaders like Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed Moynihan’s findings.

This past week (Sept. 27–29), more than four decades after the report’s publication, Harvard’s Department of Sociology, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science held a conference of social scientists and policy analysts to re-examine Moynihan’s work.

Kicking off the event were presentations by two prominent social scientists who have spent their careers grappling with many of the same issues that Moynihan dealt with in his report: James Q. Wilson, the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, and William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard.

James Q. Wilson spoke first. The author or co-author of 15 books on politics, crime, marriage, and morality, Wilson was the Shattuck Professor of Government at Harvard from 1961 to 1987, and in that capacity he recruited Moynihan to teach at Harvard. Wilson began by pointing out the contrast between the Moynihan Report’s stormy reception in 1965 and strong positive response to Moynihan’s Godkin Lectures at Harvard in 1985, in which he made virtually the same arguments.

The change, Wilson said, resulted largely from a disturbing statistic: in 1965, one-quarter of black children were born out of wedlock; 20 years later, one-quarter of white children were born out of wedlock. “Whites realized that this was a national problem,” Wilson said.

Although no one knew for certain in 1965 what effect growing up in a single-parent family had on children, today as the result of longitudinal studies, we know the experience harms children, Wilson said. “And we know it harms boys more than girls.”

Later, in response to a question, Wilson explained succinctly why marriage was important.

“Marriage was invented to control men. Men like sex, but they don’t like taking care of children, unless they’re born in their own family. Getting men to take responsibility for women and the children they father is one of the most difficult tasks society faces.”

Wilson said that Moynihan’s emphasis on the importance of marriage was reinforced by personal experience. Moynihan grew up poor in a single-parent family and as a boy shined shoes on the streets of New York.

“He never deviated from the view that the family was the core of culture,” Wilson said.

And yet, during all his years as a policy expert, an academic, and a lawmaker, Moynihan never came up with an effective program by which government could encourage marriage and the development of stable families.

“Someone once asked him what government could do about the problem,” James Q. Wilson said. “Moynihan replied, ‘If you think government can restore marriage, you know more about government than I do.’ And no one knew more about government than Pat Moynihan.”

William Julius Wilson, the recipient of numerous honors and awards, has written extensively on urban poverty and the plight of the black underclass. He called Moynihan’s report “a prophetic document,” even though its major points had been anticipated in the work of several black social scientists.

Why then was the report controversial? One reason was its style, Wilson said. Having no idea that the document would reach beyond the small group of government officials for whom it was intended, Moynihan wrote in bold, direct language calculated to convey the urgency of the problem. Many of the report’s statements about the dissolution of the black family were quoted frequently in the press without the historical context that was an integral part of Moynihan’s argument.

“By the time many critics came to read the report, they could not see it with fresh eyes because they had been exposed to the press coverage,” Wilson said.

The timing of the report also had a lot to do with its controversial reception. Around the time the report was issued, riots had erupted in black neighborhoods of several cities, and the report was seen as an attempt to blame the violence on shortcomings among blacks rather than on injustices in American society.

The report also collided with the growing black power movement, which emphasized “racial pride and black affirmation” and denied the existence of pathology.

“Self-destructive behavior was seen as creative and resilient, a way of adapting to a hostile society,” William Julius Wilson said.

The movement had the effect of stifling serious studies of urban problems during the 1970s because scholars avoided any study that could be construed as racism or blaming the victim, Wilson added.

Beginning in the 1980s, scholars once again began to study problems of the black underclass, and much of that work has been an attempt to enlarge on and refine Moynihan’s insight that the problems of low-income African Americans have cultural and historical roots.

“The problem is not simply taking account of culture, but of capturing the complexity and multidimensionality of culture. I think that Daniel Patrick Moynihan was trying to move us in that direction,” Wilson said.