In early 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927–2003), then assistant secretary for policy planning and research at the Department of Labor, completed a report that was eventually published as The Negro Family. In the report Moynihan had identified certain anomalies in U.S. employment data; for example, by the early 1960s the unemployment rate for minorities was going down while the dependency rate (or rate of welfare payments) was going up. This paradox came to be known as “Moynihan’s scissors.” He also observed that the black out-of-wedlock birth rate was climbing steeply. Moynihan’s departmental paper on these empirical findings on the black family came to be known as the Moynihan Report. It argued that the single-parent family in the ghetto was becoming more common, and that these single-mother families were not the product of unemployment, but the legacy of black slavery. A similar argument had been put forward by the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (1894–1962) in his The Negro Family in the United States (1939). Moynihan described the crisis (what he called the “tangle of pathology”) in the urban ghetto in terms of criminality, unemployment, educational failure, and fatherlessness. The unraveling of the black family was associated with the fact that with growing rates of teenage pregnancy, young parents failed to complete school and find employment. Fathers were largely absent from the home, and single mothers often became welfare dependents.
There were in fact two components to Moynihan’s argument. One was the presence of cultural norms (of dependency, family organization, and crime) in the black community that were the long-term legacy of slavery. The second was the high incidence of unemployment among black men that reduced their desirability and practicability in the marriage market. This second feature received relatively little attention in the public debate about female-headed households.
The substance of Moynihan’s report was influential in U.S. politics. Lyndon Johnson referred to it in his commencement address at Howard University in June 1965, focusing on the alleged dysfunctions of the black family and ignoring the issue of male unemployment. The empirical basis of the report also influenced academic research. James Coleman (1926–1996) published with several colleagues Equality and Educational Opportunity (1966) in which they demonstrated that the best predictor of a child’s educational achievement is not the material conditions within schools but the family background of the child. Welfare dependency and child poverty in black ghettoes remained stubbornly high, and by 1990 around 65 percent of all black children were born to unmarried mothers.
Moynihan’s report became an important aspect of “the politics of controversy” in postwar America. Some days after the report was leaked to Newsweek, riots broke out in Los Angeles’s Watts ghetto on August 11, 1965, and Moynihan’s critics argued that the report was used by the administration as an explanation for the riots. William Ryan, an activist in the Congress of Racial Equality and a clinical psychologist at Boston College, published his Blaming the Victim (1971), which claimed that the Moynihan report was racist in suggesting that the problems of the ghetto were the consequence of black male promiscuity: Because whites had better access to contraception, abortion, and adoption, their behavior was not regarded as licentious. Attacking black sexuality masked the failure of American society to deliver social justice. The report also was criticized by the black feminist and academic Joyce Ladner, who claimed in Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman (1971) that the report did not challenge the myths surrounding the white middle-class family. Feminists criticized the nuclear family as oppressive and defended the black single-parent family as a foundation for the socialization of children.
On joining President Richard Nixon’s White House staff, Moynihan supported Nixon’s commitment to a guaranteed annual income, which he analyzed in The Politics of a Guaranteed Income (1973). Moynihan subsequently became notorious for a memorandum to Nixon recommending that the question of race could benefit from a period of benign neglect. However, the issue of racial injustice remained on the social science agenda. In 1987 William Julius Wilson published The Truly Disadvantaged, in which he described the social pathology of the ghetto, criticizing liberals for failing to address black social problems. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur in Growing Up with a Single Parent (1994), summarizing the social science data on family life, concluded that children in single-parent homes did not do as well as other children on a range of indicators. Kay Hymowitz argued in Liberation’s Children (2003) that opposition to Moynihan has to be seen in the context of the rebellious climate of the 1960s.
There are other, substantive criticisms of the report. Firstly, although Moynihan praised the Nation of Islam (“black Muslims”), he ignored the extensive network of black churches, the Urban League, black fraternities and sororities, the Masons, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and black colleges, all of which contribute significantly to civil society. Secondly, the historical evidence from 1915 to 1960 showed that the rate of black births out of wedlock remained relatively unchanged, and that from the early 1960s the African American birth rate began to decline, especially among married women. Thirdly, the real “family issue” is not the number of unmarried women having too many children, but the declining prevalence of marriage as such. Clearly, female marriage rates are closely associated with male marriageability. The decline in marriage rates is in part a consequence of the dramatic increase in the educational achievement of African Americans. In 1940 African Americans in the age group 25 to 34 years had a median of 6.9 years of completed schooling; by 1960 this had increased to 10.3 years; and by the 1970s the figure was over 12 years. The gap between white and black Americans in terms of education declined steadily during this period. As high school graduation and postsecondary education became the norm between 1960 and 1975, African American men and women delayed entry into marriage, and there was a corresponding decline in fertility. In addition, adverse labor market conditions—declining real wages and labor force participation, and earnings instability—resulted in male marginalization, further contributing to the decline in marriage rate.
The critical response to the Moynihan Report essentially revolved around the idea of the pathological family in which men are absent and lone mothers dominate. This view is not unrelated to Frazier’s earlier description of these families as a “matriarchate.” An alternative explanation, which was pioneered by researchers such as Andrew Billingsley in 1968, is that the extended, matriarchal black family was an effective adaptation to the socioeconomic difficulties that African Americans confronted in racially divided society. The black family was in fact an appropriate structural response rather than a social pathology.
SEE ALSO Black Middle Class; Female-Headed Families; Moynihan, Daniel Patrick; Slavery; Unemployment
Billingsley, Andrew. 1968. Black Families in White America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Coleman, James, et al. 1966. Equality and Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: Office of Education, U.S. Government Printing Office.
Hymowitz, Kay S. 2003. Liberation’s Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
Ladner, Joyce. 1971. Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
McLanahan, Sara, and Gary Sandefur. 1994. Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. 1965. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Washington, DC: Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor.
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. 1973. The Politics of a Guaranteed Income: The Nixon Administration and the Family Assistance Plan. New York: Random House.
Rainwater, Lee, and Martin Yancey. 1967. The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Ryan, William. 1976. Blaming the Victim. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage.
Bryan S. Turner
Moynihan assembled what his critics subsequently claimed was a highly selective account of existing (mainly sociological) research into poverty in the United States. This seemed to place responsibility for being poor on the victims themselves, mainly because the ‘lower-class sub-culture’—in particular that of Blacks—was said to be dominated by ‘matriarchy’, emasculated males, educational failure, crime, delinquency, and drug addiction, all of which ultimately were attributable to the breakdown of the family structure. In the words of the report, ‘At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of weakness of the Negro community at the present time … The white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability. By contrast, the family structure of lower class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centres is approaching complete breakdown.’ Moynihan argued that ‘so long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.’
The Report provided the basis for a presidential speech that established new federal policy goals, provoked a public political controversy, attracted a host of academic and other critical reactions, and became a prominent issue in the civil rights debate and movement. Much of the discussion and many of the issues were later restated in relation to the concepts of the culture of poverty, cycles of deprivation, welfare dependency, and the underclass. For a commentary on the Report and an assessment of its significance in shaping American public policy and race relations see Charles A. Valentine , Culture and Poverty (1968