The Moynihan Family Circus
June/July/August 2015
By Stephanie Coontz

WHEN IT COMES to social thinking about families, there is such a thing as "American exceptionalism." Other Western countries tend to view people's life trajectories in light of their place in the class structure. But ever since the late-nineteenth century, Americans have typically attributed people's successes or failures to their family structures and values. This is, of course, a convenient way to reconcile our faith in individual achievement with the reality of racial and economic inequality.

A good way to begin situating the current conversation about family in America is to look back at Daniel Patrick Moynihan's landmark 1965 study, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary. Moynihan was then assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration and a strong supporter of the War on Poverty. But he became best known for his claim that slavery had enmeshed black families in a self-perpetuating "tangle of pathology." At the heart of that tangle, Moynihan argued, was a "matriarchal" culture that undermined male authority and created single-mother families. Such families, Moynihan believed, inevitably led to poverty, welfare dependency, and violence, a cycle that could be reversed only by promoting two-parent, male-breadwinner families.

At the time the Moynihan report was published, 24 percent of black infants were born to unwed mothers, compared to only 3 percent of white infants. By 2012, the figures had climbed to 70 and 30 percent, respectively. These dramatic increases raise the question of how relevant Moynihan's views on the causes and consequences of single parenthood are today.

To answer that, we must first dispose of two myths. Myth No. 1 is that Moynihan was a racist who wanted to force black women and children off welfare. It's understandable that many civil-rights activists were infuriated by Moynihan's language. For years, black Americans had been victimized by a racist "tangle of pathology" that included church bombings, murders of peaceful demonstrators, and lynchings of black teens under the guise of protecting virtuous white womanhood. But Moynihan was actually following a long line of analysis developed by many noted African Americans–including W. E. B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, and Kenneth B. Clark–who argued that slavery had enfeebled black men. Moynihan sharply denounced the "racist virus" that afflicted America, and later, as a US senator, he broke with other Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, by opposing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which established a lifetime limit of five years on the receipt of federal funds for individuals and diverted money from cash assistance to marriage promotion. Moynihan worried that curtailing income support for poor families would have devastating consequences.

Still, Moynihan hewed firmly to the belief that being raised by a single mother was the biggest problem facing children–white as well as black. There was a good deal of pathos, and personal irony, in this stance. Moynihan was himself the product of a "broken family," though his experience might have led him to very different conclusions. His father, an inveterate gambler and a drunk, deserted his family during the Depression, when Moynihan was ten. As a teenager, Moynihan helped support the family as his mother struggled through two other difficult marriages, moving frequently from job to job and home to home.

Yet he completed college, earned two graduate degrees from Tufts University, and won a Fulbright grant to study at the London School of Economics. Despite his own achievements–and despite the likelihood that the presence of a gambler and a drunk would have only exacerbated his family's troubles–he regarded the absence of his father as a serious hardship. For the rest of his life, Moynihan viewed single-mother families as the primary source of poverty, failure in school, youthful alienation, and criminality.

In 1965, he wrote an article for the Jesuit magazine America that elaborated on this theme:

From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations about the future–that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder–most particularly the furious unrestrained, lashing out at the whole social structure–that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved.

In 1992, when Moynihan and I both testified about changing family patterns before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, he read that same passage to the panel, lamenting that things had only gotten worse in the twenty-seven years since he wrote it. And things would get worse still, he claimed, if society kept "defining deviance down" by refusing to stigmatize divorce and unwed childbearing.

The charges of racism leveled at Moynihan following the appearance of his 1965 report clearly hurt his feelings and, with his encouragement, helped produce a second myth–that these criticisms stifled further discussion of the relationship between single-parent families and a self-perpetuating underclass culture. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof summed up the conventional view of the alleged suppression of Moynihan's analysis on the anniversary of the report's publication this past March: "Fifty years ago this month, Democrats made a historic mistake," Kristof wrote: They ignored Moynihan's insights, while "scholars, fearful of being accused of racism, mostly avoided studying family structure and poverty."

But it's simply untrue that politicians and scholars ignored Moynihan's warnings. Yes, between 1965 and 1973, there was little discussion of the connection between family structure and poverty–for good reason. During these years, despite rising rates of divorce and unwed motherhood, the rate of poverty was falling among the general population and in the central cities.

But after 1973, as the unemployment rate rose, real wages for young workers fell, and the federal government slashed funding for housing and infrastructure, Moynihan's analysis got a lot more traction, especially among politicians. It was used first to explain the crisis of the largely black inner cities, and then to explain the social problems that were multiplying among working-class whites.

By the 1990s, Moynihan's theme had been adopted with a vengeance by Democrats and Republicans alike. Writing in 1990, Democrats Elaine Kamarck and William Galston of the Progressive Policy Institute claimed that the relationship between crime and one-parent families was "so strong that controlling for family configuration erases the relationship between race and crime and between low income and crime."

In 1993, David Blankenhorn wrote, in Fatherless America, "Boys raised by traditionally masculine fathers generally do not commit crimes. Fatherless boys commit crimes." He was joined by a chorus of other voices on both ends of the domestic-policy spectrum. The American Enterprise Institute flatly declared: "The drug crisis, the education crisis, and the problems of teen pregnancy and juvenile crime" have "one source: broken families."

So Moynihan's analysis and predictions were far more influential than many people now believe. But does he deserve credit for his "prescience," a word used by both liberal Nicholas Kristof and conservative George F. Will to describe his report on its fiftieth anniversary?

Unfortunately, Moynihan's prescience seems to be a new myth in the making. For starters, what happened to the wave of violence that Moynihan said America so "richly deserved" for its failure to stop the spread of single-parent families? While unwed motherhood has continued to increase among all racial and ethnic groups, violent crime has been falling for more than two decades. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, the murder rate in 2012 was lower than at any time since 1963. In 2013, it was lower than at any time since the government began compiling records in 1960.

A recent report prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Philip Cohen, Heidi Hartmann, Jeff Hayes, and Chandra Childers shows that, since 1994, juvenile-crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent, even though the percentage of children born out of wedlock has reached a new high of 40 percent.

Moynihan was also wrong in his education predictions. Certainly, single-parent families face extra challenges when it comes to supervising their children and organizing extracurricular-enrichment opportunities for them. But even as more children have been raised by single mothers, educational achievement has climbed. Today, Cohen and his colleagues point out, nearly 90 percent of black young adults are high school graduates, compared to only about 50 percent in the '60s. Black college-completion rates have doubled since 1965.

One theme of Moynihan's study has been borne out–single-parent families are more likely to be poor than two-parent families. But here, too, his causal claims are misleading. For one thing, people who are already poor face serious obstacles to initiating and sustaining stable relationships. For another, in today's economy, workers in the bottom 70 percent of the earnings distribution typically need two incomes just to stay afloat. But, as Cohen and his colleagues demonstrate, fluctuations in poverty rates since the '90s cannot be explained by changes in family structure. In fact, even as single-parent families have become more prevalent, their poverty rates have fallen, thanks in no small part to increased education and job opportunities for women.

In 1967, more than 60 percent of single-mother families were poor. Today, the poverty rate for families headed by a single mother is 35 percent. This is still appallingly high compared to the poverty rate among Danish single mothers–less than 6 percent–to take one example. But it flatly contradicts what Moynihan's analysis predicted: Poverty rates did not track the rise of single-parent homes.

Moynihan was correct that communities with large concentrations of single-mother families typically have high levels of poverty and social instability. But, contrary to myth No. 2, far from there being a taboo on research into this subject, scholars have been trying to untangle the relevant associations for decades. The cultural approach argues that poverty, inequality, and poor outcomes for children flow primarily from people's cultural values, family practices, and lack of commitment to stable relationships. The social-structuralist approach focuses on the ways that economic hardship, job insecurity, and scarce neighborhood resources undermine family stability, weakening the ability to parent and partner effectively.

These are not either-or propositions. Of course there are mutual interactions between economic stress, family rearrangements, and the inability of many individuals to act effectively for their long-run well-being. It's neither just "the economy, stupid" nor just "the family, fool."

Nor is it a chicken-and-egg question. People live in different social locations. Some offer clear views of and easily navigable paths to desired outcomes. Others are marked by constricted views, blocked exits, and narrow alleys that often lead to dangerous curves or dead ends. Following an idealized road map that does not take into account the actual obstacles and openings in front of you may impede the successful navigation of your immediate terrain.

Some of the values, expectations, and habits that people develop as they try to make their way through a difficult landscape may over time impair their ability to operate in other social locations. But these values and habits do not arise out of thin air or mindless adherence to a long-standing cultural legacy.

Historians have shown, for example, that the cultural legacy of slavery did not prevent freed slaves from rushing to take advantage of the right to marry. On average, black families demonstrated higher rates of instability than white ones, but sociologist Frank F. Furstenberg points out that this disparity largely stemmed from the much greater concentration of African Americans in communities of deep poverty marked by racial discrimination and legal injustice. Where middle-class and affluent black communities did emerge, they adhered to family practices and values that were broadly similar to those of their white counterparts–and sometimes, perhaps feeling the need to refute racist stereotypes, they enforced even stricter ones.

It's certainly true that sweeping cultural changes since the '60s have had a huge impact on family patterns in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. These changes include what Moynihan called "defining deviance down"–the growing acceptance of premarital sex, singlehood, divorce, and even unwed motherhood, along with new gender norms and an increasing emphasis on personal fulfillment. Americans now expect (and receive) more intimacy and equality when they marry. But they also feel less pressure to marry than in the past, even in the event of an accidental pregnancy, and less pressure to stay married if they do not find the intimacy and equality they want.

These new values are widely diffused throughout society, differing only modestly in conjunction with income and education level. But as they filter through the different constraints and opportunities facing people in different social strata, they produce sharply different outcomes. From World War II through the '60s, there were only minor differences in family patterns by education. Today, those differences are huge. In 2012, there were about fifty-seven marriages per one thousand unmarried men and women with a college degree or higher, compared to just thirty per thousand for high school graduates and fifteen per thousand for high school dropouts. Divorce rates for high school–educated women were almost twice as high as those for their college-educated counterparts. And while 90 percent of female college graduates who had recently had a child were married, this was true of only about 40 percent of new mothers with a high school diploma and a third of new mothers without one.

The change has been particularly dramatic for the white working class, especially among blue-collar workers with a high school education–a group with no legacy of slavery or culture of single motherhood. During the postwar era, high school–educated workers actually had higher marriage rates than any other educational group. They were–and arguably still are–the strongest supporters of the male-breadwinner ideal. As Andrew J. Cherlin explains in Labor's Love Lost, the real wages of such workers doubled between 1950 and 1970, with each generation of men better able to support a family than were their fathers. Since the early '70s, however, the material foundation for these family values and practices has steadily eroded. Between 1979 and 2007, young male high school graduates saw a 29 percent decline in real annual earnings. Unemployment spells have become longer, job tenures shorter. In 1969, only 10 percent of men were still low earners by ages thirty to thirty-five. By 2004, almost a quarter of men that age were.

In the culturalist tradition of Moynihan, Charles Murray, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, claims that high school–educated whites have joined blacks in rejecting the traditional working-class ethic of sticking to a job and supporting a wife and kids. But in the recently published book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert D. Putnam, who in earlier work such as Bowling Alone (2000) emphasized cultural explanations of community and family change, seconds many other researchers in identifying economic insecurity as the primary cause of family transformation in America over the past half century. It was "the factory closings of the 1980s, not the cultural turmoil of the 1960s," Putnam writes, that triggered the transformation of working-class family patterns. "Changing personal values are an important part of the story, but only in conjunction with adverse economic trends, and ideology seems to have very little to do with it."

The combination of increasing economic inequality and decreasing gender inequality in recent years has enhanced the benefits of marriage for higher-income Americans while multiplying its risks for low-income ones. In their 2014 book, Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn note that marriage has become a better economic deal for college-educated men than it used to be, since their partners now frequently earn high wages; even if those partners "opt out" of work for a while, they can still reenter the job market easily.

Marriage has also become a better deal for college-educated women. (So has singlehood, but marriage rates have declined relatively little for this group, and have actually risen for high-earning women.) The same economic and educational resources that allow these women to exit a bad marriage make that option less important, since they can now afford to take their time finding a partner who will pull his own weight, both economically and emotionally, and once married, they have more leverage to negotiate any changes they want in the relationship.

But for low-income women, getting married is a riskier proposition than when men's wages were rising and women had few ways to make a living on their own. Two incomes, even if small, are better than one, which encourages low-income couples to move in together rapidly. But women in particular know that the insecurity of the job market can abruptly turn a partner into just another mouth to feed, while the chronic stresses of economic insecurity can fuel behaviors that jeopardize her financial, emotional, and even physical safety. Women must balance these risks against their own earning prospects, which are better than in the '50s and '60s though still, on average, worse than men's.

So while low-income couples value marriage as much as higher-income ones, they hesitate to make long-term legal commitments, even if they have a child together, until each partner has proved his or her economic and personal reliability. Unfortunately, economic and interpersonal stresses often dissolve a relationship before partners are able to meet their financial and marital goals.

No serious researcher denies that the interactions between economic disadvantage and family instability can perpetuate a cycle of social alienation and dysfunction. When people can't achieve the goals that society holds out–goals they often endorse themselves–they experience a sense of personal failure. Some suffer depression and self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Others may salvage a sense of self, in the words of David A. Snow and Leon Anderson in Down on Their Luck: A Study of Homeless Street People, by embracing their divergence from the middle-class script as a positive identity. For men, this can mean seeking respect by reworking traditional gender identities into a pattern of hypermasculinity or hypersexuality. For women, it can mean viewing motherhood as the most plausible route to a feeling of achievement and meaning.

Elijah Anderson, in Code of the Street, describes the "game" that many young men in the inner city perpetrate on women, getting them into bed by playing imaginary house and talking about an imaginary future. Anderson points out that this behavior often originates in sincere desires, becoming cynical only when the man realizes he will never be able to deliver on his promises. But once the game works, the man may become proud of his skill and actively seek to "put one over" on women, rationalizing that they are out to get what they can from men, anyway. And, indeed, young women may be trying to get what they can, because they don't expect any guy to stay around long. Withholding trust may be a rational response to these tensions, but it can also exacerbate the gender hostility and cynicism that undermine the stability for which most people yearn.

The more deeply impoverished the neighborhood, researchers have found, the higher the incidence of such moral cynicism and the lower the levels of social altruism. The result is an accumulation of what Robert T. Sampson calls "collective forms of demoralization."

Heeding Moynihan's insistence that we take a moral stand against deviance, New York Times columnist David Brooks claims that even "people born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?" But such questions completely overlook the way chronic stress and material deprivation unsettle people's ability to plan for the future, to weigh alternatives, and to embrace "deferred gratification," a concept that only makes sense if you have some hope that what you are deferring won't disappear before you get another chance.

The culturalists are certainly correct that we can't just give someone from a chaotic family or neighborhood a nine-to-five job, or move them to a better school or different location, and expect them to transform their trajectories. Such individuals need help altering their worldviews, accessing new information, and developing better planning skills. They need to learn how to function in unfamiliar environments.

But we cannot expect people to maintain such skills if they are not offered relief from the stress of chronic insecurity. As psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan show, low-income couples can acquire better relationship skills and values, and we don't have to wait for socioeconomic transformation to help them do so. But as psychologist Benjamin Karney, who has extensively studied how material pressures undermine healthy interactions between married couples, puts it: Teaching couples relationship skills and values without reducing external sources of stress is like giving people piano lessons without a piano.

For all the weaknesses of Moynihan's analysis and predictions, when it came to practical matters, he recognized–unlike some of his contemporary admirers–the primacy of changing people's socioeconomic environments. The best way to celebrate his achievements fifty years later would be to ignore his report and rediscover the speech that he helped write for President Johnson's commencement address to Howard University in 1965. Here, Moynihan was truly prescient, emphasizing the need for "jobs . . . decent homes . . . an equal chance to learn . . . welfare and social programs better designed to hold families together . . . care for the sick . . . [and] an understanding heart."


Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, is the author of Marriage, a History (Viking, 2005) and The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic Books, 1992).

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