Debating the Moynihan Report, 50 Years Later

Debating the Moynihan Report, 50 Years Later

A half-century ago, Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan presented "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action." The document, which become known as simply the "Moynihan Report," argued that the decline of the two-parent family had exacerbated poverty, unemployment, and other social ills in black communities. Moynihan advocated a new national goal: family stability for African-Americans.

Much has happened since 1965. On Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the Manhattan Institute will host a symposium, "Prospects for Black America," to discuss the issues of the report as they stand today. The event is open to the public (see more details and register here), and among the participants will be political leaders, distinguished journalists, and policy experts from across the political spectrum.

A sociologist by training, Moynihan cited statistics demonstrating higher rates of illegitimacy and welfare dependency and declining rates of marriage within black communities. Building upon an argument advanced by black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, Moynihan posited that the lack of father figures in black communities could be traced back to slavery, and that urbanization had increased this problem, as urban environments were more conducive to family dysfunction, crime, and other problems.

According to Moynihan, the breakdown of the black family had created a vicious cycle. An increase in illegitimacy makes it more difficult for parents to finish their education. Low education, in turn, leads to low incomes and fewer opportunities for children. The cycle repeats.

Presented a little over a year after President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty, the Moynihan Report is popularly cited by many on the right as a critique of welfare policy, but Moynihan was no welfare opponent. The sociologist was a Democrat who believed that government should play an active role in addressing economic inequalities, but he also believed in the importance of the traditional family. Many on the left, meanwhile, have taken a critical view of the document, accusing it of everything from victim-blaming to cultural bias to sexism (given its emphasis on the importance of fathers).

In other words, the Moynihan Report remains controversial 50 years after its release. The event Tuesday will be an opportunity to continue the debate.

Patrick Horan is a research associate at RealClearPolitics and a contributor at RealClearHistory.

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