The continuing family breakdown
How often does the Office of Policy Planning and Research, United States Department of Labor produce anything worth reading, let alone a report that reverberates 45 years later?
Such was the brilliance of Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan that it happened once, when he wrote his prescient 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” He wrote it on a typewriter over a few weeks and had the publications office in the basement of the Labor Department print 100 of them, marked “For Official Use Only.”
The report sparked a furor of continuing relevance, as James T. Patterson recounts in his new book, “Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle Over Black Families From LBJ to Obama.”
The late Moynihan, whose father abandoned his family, believed that “the richest inheritance any child can have is a stable, loving, disciplined family life.” He wanted to create a sense of urgency about the fact that black children were disproportionately denied this inheritance.
Black out-of-wedlock births had increased from 18 percent in 1950 to 23.6 percent in 1963. (The figure for whites was still just 3.07 percent). In central Harlem, 43 percent of births to nonwhite women were out of wedlock. In the inner city, Moynihan wrote, “the center of the tangle of pathology is the weakness of the family structure.”
In what became known as “Moynihan’s scissors,” he noted that illegitimate births had stopped tracking with the unemployment rate; instead, as unemployment fell, out-of-wedlock births continued to rise. Illegitimacy had developed a dynamic all its own.
Moynihan had written from an unassailably liberal perspective, hoping to spur a new chapter in government activism. No matter. He had run up against a new liberal taboo. At a White House-organized civil-rights conference, Moynihan’s report disappeared down the memory hole. As an administration official told Moynihan, “The family is not an action topic for a can-do conference.”
Eventually elected to the Senate from New York, Moynihan became a voice in the wilderness on the most important social trend in our time. By 1970, the out-of-wedlock birthrate had climbed to 38 percent among blacks, and was rising across all groups. “Young, lower-class black women in the 1960s,” Patterson writes, “had formed the leading edge of broad-based, long-term changes in family formation.”
By 2008, the situation circa 1963 looked positively Cleaver-esque. The black out-of-wedlock birthrate hit 72.3 percent; for everyone, it was 40.6 percent. This is a slow-moving social catastrophe. According to Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, the poverty rate of married-couple families is five times lower than for female-headed families with children.
“There is one unmistakable lesson in American history,” Moynihan wrote, “a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos.” It’s a statement just as true and nearly as unwelcome as it was four decades ago.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.