Arts & Culture

The ‘social power’ of marriage

4 min read

By all accounts, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a funny man with a wide-ranging, brilliant, synthesizing mind. At the same time, many of his friends say, he had a gift for dramatic language that sometimes overshadowed his true intentions.

One example is the now-famous description of black family life as a “tangle of pathology,” which appears in Moynihan’s 1965 report, formally called “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action.” Decades later, to some audiences, that one phrase still makes the longtime liberal sound like a racist.

“Drop the Moynihan part,” is something Franklin D. Raines ’76 often hears after speeches to black audiences. The former Moynihan staffer in the White House (and one-time head of the Office of Management and Budget) appeared on a “Lessons for Public Policy” panel Sept. 29, the last day of “The Moynihan Report Revisited” conference.

“The controversy part of the report hurt him deeply,” said Raines — and indirectly caused “too many years [of] silence on the issue of black families.”

In 2000, a year before he died, Moynihan “was still shaking his head: ‘What did I do wrong?’” remembered Orlando Patterson on the same panel. He’s John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard — and agreed that his old friend “had a fatal attraction for the bon mot, the attractive phrase.” (Moynihan also coined “benign neglect” in the 1970s — his misunderstood call for a cooling of rhetoric in the civil rights debate.)

The Moynihan Report gave conservative commentators years of ammunition, said panelist Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. ’76, a former Moynihan staffer and MSNBC pundit who’s now executive producer of “The West Wing.” But the irony is that in the decades after the 1965 report appeared, “the American government embarked on decades of liberal reform,” he said — much of it “done quietly by Professor Moynihan.”

His friend, mentor, and boss wasn’t opposed to public assistance, said O’Donnell. “He wanted to turn the welfare office into the employment office.”

The Moynihan report is remembered as an indictment of households without fathers. The Harvard conference took on the lively debate over the place of marriage in social ills.

“The lesson is overwhelming,” and marriage has affirmative social power, said Michael Barone, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The kids never vote for divorce.”

Real social reform doesn’t require conventional marriages — it requires multiracial “public kinship,” said panelist Bobby Austin, chair of the State of the African-American Male Initiative of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The conversation Moynihan started on marriage is important, said Karl Zinsmeister, a one-time assistant to the senator and now domestic policy adviser to President George W. Bush. “Families are not just a private issue.”

Though Moynihan was talking about a minority of black families, Zinsmeister said in a keynote address on Sept. 28, it is now widely held that the stabilizing “male-female dyad” in a household is a trenchant indicator of a child’s future economic and educational success. The reform of marriage, said Zinsmeister, is “the best antidote to the social turmoils Moynihan worried over.”

But these days, he added, there are also pressures because of eroding tax breaks for struggling families — a third of what they were in the two decades after World War II. “Raising children itself is an economic disadvantage,” said Zinsmeister, who used “parental emergency” to describe the child-rearing years. “If you act as a devoted parent, you get left behind.”

He called the Harvard conference a valuable contribution to a national dialogue on race and family — and Moynihan himself would have been “delighted” to sit in the back row and take it all in.

Robert Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard and author of the bestselling “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” acknowledged that the conference is just a start on a public dialogue that should continue.

“The mark of a good conference,” he said, “is that it’s not over.”

“The Moynihan Report Revisited: Lessons and Reflections after Four Decades” was sponsored by the American Academy of Political and Social Science at the University of Pennsylvania; Department of Sociology, Harvard University; and W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University. Podcasts of the conference will be available on the Web in a few weeks. For more, go to