Was the Moynihan Report right? Sobering findings after 1965 study is revisited

June 13, 2013

New research released by the Urban Institute on Thursday comparing the social and economic status of African American families in 1965 to their condition today paints a troubling picture about their current state — and, by extension, the long-term economic survival of the collective black community.

Nearly 50 years after the release of the U.S. Department of Labor report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which was highly controversial and widely criticized at the time, the new Urban Institute study found that the alarming statistics in the report back then “have only grown worse, not only for blacks, but for whites and Hispanics as well.”

The older report was an unsparing look at the roots of black poverty issued in the height of the Civil Rights movement and at the start of the War on Poverty. Commonly referred to as the Moynihan Report, named for its author, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, it called for more government action to improve the economic prospects of black families. Moynihan was a sociologist and assistant secretary for policy planning and research at the Labor Department who eventually became a prominent U.S. senator.

The new report, “The Moynihan Report Revisited,” outlines some of the very same challenges to the well-being of black families chronicled back then, including acute and concentrated poverty in low-income black neighborhoods populated by underemployed and unemployed residents; crime; inequality in housing, employment, education, health care, and the criminal justice system; high rates of nonmarital births and children raised in households headed by single women; and social welfare policies that undermine the role of black men. (The report also offers more context about the larger political, social, legal and economic forces that have contributed to the problems.)   

“Today, the share of white children born outside marriage is about the same as the share of black children born outside marriage in Moynihan’s day,” the Urban Institute report said. “The percentage of black children born to unmarried mothers, in comparison, tripled between the early 1960s and 2009, remaining far higher than the percentage of white children born to unmarried mothers.”

About 20 percent of black children were born to unmarried mothers in the early 1960s, compared with 2 to 3 percent of white children. “By 2009, nearly three-quarters of black births and three-tenths of white births occurred outside marriage. Hispanics fell between whites and blacks and followed the same rising trend.”

Gregory Acs, an author of the report and the director of the institute’s Income and Policy Benefits Center, said it was striking to go back to the Moynihan Report and look at where progress was made, where ground was lost and how persistent these disparities have remained over the decades.

“One of the key things to understand is how many strands are attached to this web of problems,” he said. “We can choose not to address these issues now, or address them in piecemeal and continue to throw money at the consequences, or we can create sustainable programs at multiple levels that carry at-risk kids from conception to the workforce.”

Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a director of its Center on Children and Families, wrote a chapter titled “Moynihan Was Right: Now What?” in a 2009 book about the original study.

He said in an interview with The Washington Post that the findings in the new report indicate that even as African Americans clearly enjoy more opportunity today and that the black middle class has grown, the challenges that undermine sustained and widespread economic prosperity remain stubborn. Chief among those challenges, Haskins said, is the disproportionate share of black children living in single-parent homes.

“We have scores of studies that show that kids that grow up in single-women-headed families don’t fare as well, are more likely to do poorly in school and to drop out of school, to be arrested, to become single parents themselves,” he said. “These factors reinforce the economic disadvantages that these kids face and impact the larger black community.”

He said the problems will remain and possibly worsen until the numbers of children in black, Hispanic and white families living in two-parent homes increase.

“We are not going to have an effective solution to the growing inequality and poverty in the U.S. unless we can do something about family structure,” Haskins said.

David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Civic Engagement and Governance Institute of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the current economic and political climate only adds more strain, creating structural barriers that impede the progress of black families. .
“The economy really stinks right now, and the conservative lawmakers want to make it worse,” he said. “If the economy is bad for white men, it’s a hundred times worse for black workers in general and black men in particular,” he said.

 Still, Bositis said he is encouraged by changes to criminal laws that disproportionately penalized black males, sent them to jail for long periods of time and hurt their potential to find jobs, earn money, and support their families when released.   

 “There’s a realization that prisons are extraordinarily expensive and that you can’t be sending hundreds of thousands of people to prisons for nonviolent drug crimes. Putting people in jail is like an economic death sentence for African American men.”

Although the new report is concerning, Bositis said, “we are on the verge of being a different society, and when it’s politically manifested, and young people start participating politically on a more regular basis, the politics of this country are going to change. We’re not far away from the time when the politics of the country will want to address the remedies in the Urban Institute report.”

Marjorie Valbrun, a fellow at Marquette University's Diederich College of Communication, is reporting a project for The Washington Post sponsored by the O'Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism.
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