Listening to Moynihan, at last

This may sound odd, but as we mark the 10-year anniversary of the passage of the historic welfare reform act, we really ought to honor one of the men who opposed this legislation when it came before the U.S. Senate.

For long before the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) voiced his doubts about welfare reform legislation, Professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the consensus now building about the root cause of child poverty and welfare dependency.

In 1965, Moynihan authored a report for the Johnson administration titled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." The report was remarkable in its form: It represented perhaps the first major attempt to use the tools of the social sciences to help policymakers define and describe a national problem.

But the Moynihan report was even more remarkable in its content: It looked at the state of the black family in America and argued that many of the problems commonly believed to be attributable to race and other factors were actually due to differences in family structure.

"Indices of dollars of income, standards of living and years of education deceive," reads the introduction to the Moynihan report. "The fundamental problem . . . is that of family structure."

In drawing this conclusion, Moynihan contrasted two different populations within the black community. "The Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling," he observed. "A middle-class group has managed to save itself, but for vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated, city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships has all but disintegrated. So long as this situation persists, the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself."

Moynihan's point wasn't to disparage African-Americans, but to suggest that the disadvantages of living in a one-parent family could be readily seen in the experiences of many urban black households.

Moreover, Moynihan warned, the "tangle of pathology" clearly evident in urban ghettos would spread throughout American life if the wider society were to retreat from marriage and marital childbearing in a similar fashion.

Regrettably, Moynihan's message was attacked by liberal demagogues eager to ascribe racist motives to his analysis. They excoriated Moynihan, accusing him of "blaming the victim." As a result, an implicit gag rule developed, muzzling future discussion. Debate about the poor degenerated into a social ritual in which leaders in both parties rarely mentioned the main cause of poverty.

To his credit, Moynihan never backed down. He was fond of saying, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts." So he continued to warn that family breakdown in the black community would aggravate the economic, social and educational disadvantages already facing African-Americans.

When Moynihan took a second look at these issues in a 1985 book, he concluded that the problem of unwed childbearing had become "ominous" for "all races," and not just blacks, since out-of-wedlock births for the entire population had reached levels similar to those found among blacks in the 1960s.

Accordingly, Moynihan called for "a national policy urged at saving the American family." And he argued, "The principal objective of American government at every level should be to see that children are born into intact families and that they remain so."

At the same time, Moynihan possessed an intellectual honesty and humility rarely seen in Washington. In a town where most public officials only talk about problems they claim to know how to solve, Moynihan repeatedly claimed to have no good public-policy solution to the problem of unwed childbearing.

Ironically, Moynihan was partially vindicated during the debate over the 1996 welfare reform act, legislation which he vehemently opposed. At least half of the debate on the Senate floor centered on the harmful effects of out-of-wedlock childbearing, the issue for which he had been the lonely champion for so many years.

As a result of that debate, two explicit goals of the welfare-reform law became reducing out-of-wedlock childbearing and restoring stable marriage. Thus, for the first time, government acknowledged the issue which Moynihan had discovered so long before.

Unfortunately, most state welfare bureaucracies, overcome by political correctness, largely ignored these two goals and squandered ample opportunities to explore ways to rebuild marriage.

In response to the lackluster efforts of these state governments, the Bush administration developed an explicit "Healthy Marriage Initiative" targeted at low-income communities. Funding for this initiative was included, for the first time, in the welfare-reform reauthorization enacted this past February.

Thus, 41 years after Moynihan first issued his warning, the federal government is finally taking the first steps to address the critical issue he identified.

Kudos to the late Sen. Moynihan. It's too bad the government took four decades to listen to his wisdom.

Robert Rector is a Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Robert Rector
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

First appeared in the New York Post