By Kevin Boyle
Sunday, July 18, 2010; B06
The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle Over Black Family Life -- from LBJ to Obama
By James T. Patterson
Basic. 264 pp. $26.95
Shortly after the cataclysmic Watts riot in the summer of 1965, word spread around Washington that the Johnson administration had in its hands a secret report on the state of Black America. It had been written, said the rumors, by a little-known official in the Department of Labor: Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And it was "a political atom bomb," according to columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, "which strips away usual equivocations and exposes the ugly truth about the big-city Negros' plight." What followed, as Brown University historian James T. Patterson makes clear in this fine-grained study, was one of the great tragedies of postwar policy making.
Moynihan drafted his report in hopes of advancing the nation's racial agenda. By early 1965 African Americans had finally shattered the Southern system of segregation. But securing civil rights was only a first step, he argued. Now it was time to address the economic injustice that kept almost half the black population below the poverty line, to turn equality of opportunity into equality of outcome. To reach that extraordinary goal, though, the federal government had to confront what Moynihan believed to be the great plague sweeping through black ghettos: the disintegration of traditional family life. Much of the report was devoted to presenting the grim evidence of that disintegration: The divorce rate for blacks was 40 percent higher than for whites; a quarter of African-American babies were born to unwed mothers; 36 percent of black children were living with one parent or none at all. Unless those trends were reversed, Moynihan insisted -- and they could be with proper government action -- the cycle of poverty that trapped so many African Americans would not be broken.
African American scholars and activists had been making these same points for years. But in the aftermath of Watts, the message seemed to take on a more sinister tone. As soon as rumors of Moynihan's work began to circulate, liberals -- white and black -- condemned it as irresponsible, an attempt to blame African Americans for their own victimization just as white fears of ghetto blacks were skyrocketing. Once the report was made public, the liberal attacks intensified: It was sensationalistic, simplistic, insensitive and inaccurate, critics charged, "one of those academic efforts to get our eyes off the prize," a model of "genteel racism." The backlash terrified the White House, which promptly disassociated itself from the report and its author. "I don't know what was in there," LBJ reportedly said, "but whatever it was, stay away from it."
The story of the Moynihan Report's demise has been told a number of times before. Patterson's key contribution is to show how the controversy that Moynihan triggered continued to warp public discussion of the concerns he raised long after the report itself had been filed away. The conflict so scarred liberals, Patterson says, that for almost 20 years they refused to acknowledge the crisis in inner-city family life. Only in the mid-1980s did they begin to change their minds, a transformation led by social scientists like William Julius Wilson, who wrote in his brilliant 1987 book, "The Truly Disadvantaged," that Moynihan's analysis had been "prophetic." But by then conservatives had taken control of the issue, trading on the image of the dysfunctional poor -- Ronald Reagan's famous "welfare queen" -- to hammer away at the liberal state Moynihan had intended to champion.
There the debate remains. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed a Republican-sponsored bill that abolished the nation's foremost welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, an action that enraged then-Sen. Moynihan. In the years since, there has been no attempt to revive the comprehensive governmental attack on poverty that had seemed possible in the mid-1960s. Instead, politicians across the ideological spectrum settle for lecturing poor African Americans on their responsibilities. Even Barack Obama, who has written so movingly about the burdens of being raised in a fatherless home, seems more willing to criticize the poor for their behavior -- too many African American fathers are "acting like boys instead of men," he said in a widely publicized speech in 2008 -- than to use federal power to address the tangle of problems that afflicts the inner cities.
Meanwhile, the situation Moynihan described 45 years ago has grown far, far worse. In 2008, 72 percent of African American babies were born to single mothers, a rate almost one and a half times that of Hispanic Americans, two and a half times that of non-Hispanic whites, and four and a half times that of Asian Americans. If current patterns hold, half of those newborns will be raised in poverty. That's approximately a quarter-million African American children, more than the entire population of Orlando, Fla., trapped on the bottom rung of the American social structure each year by the accident of birth. As Moynihan understood, that's an injustice that cannot be solved by jeremiads alone.
Kevin Boyle teaches history at Ohio State University. He is the author of "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age," which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2004.