The warnings that Daniel Patrick Moynihan sounded 50 years ago have come true. Will liberals ever forgive him?
By Jason L. Riley
Will liberals ever forgive Daniel Patrick Moynihan for being right?
Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the future senator’s report on the black family, the controversial document issued while he served as an assistant secretary in President Lyndon Johnson’s Labor Department. Moynihan highlighted troubling cultural trends among inner-city blacks, with a special focus on the increasing number of fatherless homes.
“The fundamental problem is that of family structure,” wrote Moynihan, who had a doctorate in sociology. “The evidence—not final but powerfully persuasive—is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.”
For his troubles, Moynihan was denounced as a victim-blaming racist bent on undermining the civil-rights movement. Even worse, writes Harvard’s Paul Peterson in the current issue of the journal Education Next, Moynihan’s “findings were totally ignored by those who designed public policies at the time.” The Great Society architects would go on to expand old programs or formulate new ones that exacerbated the problems Moynihan identified. Marriage was penalized and single parenting was subsidized. In effect, the government paid mothers to keep fathers out of the home—and paid them well.
“Economists and policy analysts of the day worried about the negative incentives that had been created,” writes Mr. Peterson. “Analysts estimated that in 1975 a household head would have to earn $20,000”—or an inflation-adjusted $88,000 today—“to have more resources than what could be obtained from Great Society programs.”
History has proved that Moynihan was onto something. When the report was released, about 25% of black children and 5% of white children lived in a household headed by a single mother. During the next 20 years the black percentage would double and the racial gap would widen. Today more than 70% of all black births are to unmarried women, twice the white percentage.
For decades research has shown that the likelihood of teen pregnancy, drug abuse, dropping out of school and many other social problems grew dramatically when fathers were absent. One of the most comprehensive studies ever done on juvenile delinquency—by William Comanor and Llad Phillips of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2002—concluded that “the most critical factor affecting the prospect that a male youth will encounter the criminal justice system is the presence of his father in the home.”
Ultimately, the Moynihan report was an attempt to have an honest conversation about family breakdown and black pathology, one that most liberals still refuse to join. Faulting ghetto culture for ghetto outcomes remains largely taboo among those who have turned bad behavior into a symbol of racial authenticity. Moynihan noted that his goal was to better define a problem that many thought—mistakenly, in his view—was no big deal and would solve itself in the wake of civil-rights gains. The author’s skepticism was warranted.
Later this year the nation also will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which some consider the most significant achievement of the modern-day civil-rights movement. With a twice-elected black man now occupying the White House, it might be difficult for younger Americans to appreciate this milestone. However, in 1964, three years after Barack Obama was born, black voter registration in Mississippi was less than 7%, the lowest in the South. By 1966 it had grown to 60%, the highest in the South.
Today black voter-registration rates in the South, where most blacks still live, are higher than in other regions of the country, and for the first time on record the black voter-turnout rate in 2012 exceeded white turnout.
Rarely does a government action achieve its objective with such speed and precision. Racial restrictions to ballot access were removed and black political power increased dramatically. Since 1970 the number of black elected officials in the U.S. has grown to more than 9,000 from fewer than 1,500 and has included big-city mayors, governors, senators and of course a president.
But even as we note this progress, the political gains have not redounded to the black underclass, which by several important measures—including income, academic achievement and employment—has stagnated or lost ground over the past half-century. And while the civil-rights establishment and black political leaders continue to deny it, family structure offers a much more plausible explanation of these outcomes than does residual white racism.
In 2012 the poverty rate for all blacks was more than 28%, but for married black couples it was 8.4% and has been in the single digits for two decades. Just 8% of children raised by married couples live in poverty, compared with 40% of children raised by single mothers.
One important lesson of the past half-century is that counterproductive cultural traits can hurt a group more than political clout can help it. Moynihan was right about that, too.
Mr. Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and Journal contributor, is the author of “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed” (Encounter Books, 2014).