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The Legacy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan

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By Robert B. Hill
[Guest Columnist]


Robert B. Hill, a former director of research at the National Urban League, is Senior Researcher at Westat, Inc., a research firm in Rockville, Maryland.

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the unflappable former Senator from New York, was a scholar and an individual with a marvelous bent toward public service: he served in the administration of two Democratic presidents and two Republican presidents.

But many African Americans may not view him favorably at all: They remember his 1965 report that declared the female-headed family structure as a “self-perpetuating tangle of pathology” which was primarily responsible for most Black ills.

Many critics charged the study with “blaming the victim” because it appeared to minimize the role of such external forces as racism, economic oppression and destructive government policies.

Blacks also recall the “benign neglect” memorandum that Moynihan prepared as an advisor to President Nixon in 1969—a memo that was widely construed as urging this nation to shift its attention from racial concerns. These were the sources of the feeling among some that Moynihan was anti-Black and anti-poor.

That view is wrong.

For example, Moynihan’s intent in the controversial report: “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” which he prepared for President Johnson to incorporate in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University was to spur policymakers to enact major legislation to strengthen Black families.

However, legislators in the Congress and the statehouses ignored their responsibilities in this area. Such efforts did not materialize, and the report itself was roundly condemned by many Blacks and liberal whites.

Yet, much of Moynihan’s document had strong empirical support:

It made a convincing case for assessing the lasting effects of slavery, historic discrimination, unemployment, and poverty on Black family instability. It referred to studies that found strong correlations between single-parent families and low educational achievement and high rates of delinquency and crime. And it predicted that the declining ratio of males to females would have detrimental consequences for Black families.

Unquestionably, the most troubling aspect of the report was the causal role attributed to the female-headed family structure.
Here, Moynihan was on less sure ground. Although he cited the African-American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier extensively in the document, Frazier himself viewed single-parent Black families in urban areas as a consequence, not a cause, of such developments as recessions, discrimination, unemployment, and poverty.

In his influential 1968 book, the scholar Andrew Billingsley asserted that one couldn’t fully understand how the Black family functioned without examining the impact of social forces and institutions in the larger white society as well as in the Black community.

Moreover, the 1972 National Urban League study, “The Strengths of Black Families,” which I authored, contended that most Black families headed by women were not characterized by a weak work ethic and moral defects, but by strong kinship networks and other assets. My focus on female-headed families, and also on out-of-wedlock births, followed a path forged in preceding years by numerous Black scholars.

Indeed, at the 1930 White House Conference on Children, the noted black sociologist Ira DeA. Reid, then Director of Research for the National Urban League, presented a “pre-Moynihan” report that highlighted the alarming rates of single-parent families, out-of-wedlock births, infant mortality, poverty, overcrowding and ill health among Blacks.

Reid concluded that the Black community would be willing to address these issues itself if it were provided adequate resources.
Of course, his plea, and those of others along the same lines, went unremarked upon by the larger society for a generation—until the Moynihan report appeared.

Moynihan’s commitment to progressive public policies can be seen in such things as the major role he played in ensuring that the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provided more adequate income to elderly persons who had been domestics or farmers when those job categories weren’t covered by the 1935 Social Security Act.

He also spearheaded the expansion of the progressive Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to reduce the disparate tax burden on low-income working families. Both of these measures disproportionately help poor Blacks.

Furthermore, Moynihan’s efforts were crucial to the passage of the innovative Family Support Act in 1988; and he was an early and vigorous critic of President Clinton’s support for the so-called welfare reform act of 1996. Moynihan rightly predicted that this “anti-family” legislation would have harmful consequences for many poor families, a prediction subsequent research has vindicated.

Moynihan should also be credited with another legacy that is rarely mentioned. Although many have complained that the controversy over his report stifled research on Black families, in fact, it was the catalyst for hundreds of such studies by both Black and white scholars which have markedly increased our understanding of family life among Blacks and other economically disadvantaged groups.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan labored unstintingly over the years to improve the social and economic well being of families of all races. His passing marks the loss of a truly visionary scholar and statesman.

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