Where’s the obituary for the Moynihan Report?

Long debunked, it survives today because it feeds the convenient narrative that poor people cause their own problems

October 10, 2015 2:00AM ET

Fifty years ago, a Department of Labor policy analyst named Daniel Patrick Moynihan released his controversial report about black families and poverty. 1965 was a volatile year of civil rights victories, Vietnam blunders and raging cities. The future Sen. Moynihan’s research project aimed to explain why African-American poverty persisted despite a prosperous economy and new anti-discrimination laws.

He concluded that African-Americans’ apparent preference for matriarchal families was a major cause of the problem. Excessive numbers of female-headed households, he argued, produced a “tangle of pathology” reflected in high rates of nonmarital pregnancy, school dropout and criminal conviction. The report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (PDF), was still an internal draft when it was leaked to several reporters that summer, just before the Watts uprising in Los Angeles.

The report became instantly famous. It appeared to confirm that bad parenting, not racist policing, caused Watts residents to riot. Most civil rights leaders and quite a few academics and policy researchers condemned it as victim blaming and demonstrably flawed research. His race-based comparisons didn’t control for income level, and he staked his whole premise about causation on a single inverse correlation that was both confounded and misinterpreted. Although largely discredited at the time, it nonetheless has remained ideologically attractive.

The Moynihan Report is still invoked by columnists, politicians and many academics as proof for the argument that African-American culture is a problem. Across a wide political spectrum, from far right to center left, there is still wide support for this pernicious thesis and abundant undeserved praise for both Moynihan’s ideas and his research.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Atlantic article about Moynihan and mass incarceration offers a needed corrective, implicating both his report and his ambivalent politics in the massive expansion of prisons that detain disproportionate numbers of black men and devastate the families and communities they leave behind. Coates connects Moynihan’s “tangle of pathology” to the widely held image of black men as dangerous. He offers an incisive historical discussion of the criminalization of black people, from Jim Crow exclusion and lynching to the contemporary imprisonment of huge numbers of black men and women and the too many black children in dicey foster care.

Yet Coates didn’t go far enough in enumerating the unfortunate effects of Moynihan’s report. Not only does it accord with aggressive policing and punitive imprisonment, but Moynihan’s argument about single motherhood was also frequently deployed in the 1996 effort that ended welfare as we knew it. The so-called welfare queen — whose image was invariably black, even though more white women were receiving assistance from the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program at the time it was abolished — became a potent symbol for passing strict work requirements and five-year lifetime limits, with tremendous discretion to states concerning benefits. 

Moynihan’s thesis gave comfort to employers who preferred not to hire black people for racist reasons but could rationalize it as good business.

Flat funding over nearly 20 years has resulted in drastic reductions in the number of people covered, from almost 14 million in 1996 to fewer than 4 million in 2010. Enrollments remained flat during the recent recession, despite soaring poverty numbers. Welfare researchers Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer blame the dismantling of the program for the expansion of deep poverty in the U.S. — defined as a cash income per person of about $2 a day. Although Moynihan voted against the legislation in the Senate, his report and work in Richard Nixon’s administration railing against the dependency of welfare recipients did much to encourage its development.

Moynihan’s report is also cited in a growing amount of urban research, beginning with the sociologist William Julius Wilson’s “The Truly Disadvantaged,” that asserts that the social environments of public housing and extremely poor neighborhoods are infected with a collective version of this cultural pathology.

Such research has been used as an excuse to demolish hundreds of public housing complexes, which has greatly reduced the supply of housing affordable for very low-income families. Negative images attached to families from the projects, typically wrapped in Moynihan’s language of pathology, are cited by politicians who oppose expanding low-income housing into higher-income areas. White homeowners have been conditioned to believe that poor black neighbors will depress their home values and threaten their children. As long as such stigma is allowed to remain unacknowledged and unchallenged, desegregation will remain problematic.

Decent employment is the keystone of poverty alleviation, and it was the main focus of Moynihan’s early interests. A man without a job, he reasoned, cannot hold up his head and support his family. As Coates points out, many of Moynihan’s biographers have argued that his original goal was to develop a jobs program, combined with a guaranteed annual income for families. Those ideas did not work out politically, and he appeared to convince himself that the problem was defective maternal parenting, which reared unemployable workers. Biographers also contend that his focus on broken families and pathology was a ruse, a sensationalist tactic to gain attention for the persisting problems of black male unemployment.

The best that can be said is that it backfired, badly. His thesis gave comfort to employers who preferred not to hire black people for racist reasons but could rationalize it as good business: If research shows that black workers are unreliable, then it would be unwise to hire one. Economists call this statistical discrimination. Transcripts of statements from employers who have used this form of discrimination show that they say really racist things about why they did so. One study showed that employers who reported positive prior experiences with black workers still expressed anti-black views with respect to hiring. As Coates also notes, a qualified black man without a criminal record is less likely to be hired than a comparable white applicant who has one. Thus, in the context where it arguably matters the most, stereotyped images of cultural pathology have nurtured serious obstacles. The black unemployment rate is double the white rate and is sky high for black youths. Moynihan was, in a sense, correct. Employment is at the heart of the problem, except his report helped make it worse.

Current supporters of the report overlook the flaws and argue that its warnings were prophetic. When Moynihan first sounded the alarm, fewer than 25 percent of black children were born into nonmarital households; the rate is now 72 percent. Rates in other groups, however, have increased at about the same pace, although starting at lower levels. The trend lines for black, white and Latino marriages are virtually identical over the past 30 years, tracking recessions and the general decline in real wages. In other words, structural, not cultural, factors are driving the difference.

The Moynihan Report was misguided in conception and defective in its research. It survives today only because it feeds the narrative that poor people cause their own problems and the economy is not to blame. It is time to write the obituary on this monster.

Susan Greenbaum is a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of South Florida. She is the author of “More Than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa” and a newly released book about the Moynihan Report, “Blaming the Poor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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