Academic journal article Education Next

Moynihan and the Single-Parent Family: The 1965 Report and Its Backlash

Academic journal article Education Next

Moynihan and the Single-Parent Family: The 1965 Report and Its Backlash

Article excerpt

IN LATE 1964, Daniel Patrick "Pat" Moynihan was a largely unknown 37-year-old assistant secretary of labor in the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. A liberal Democrat who had been an aide to Governor Averell Harriman of New York in the 1950s, Moynihan enthusiastically supported John F. Kennedy, a fellow Irish Catholic, in 1960. With the help of friends, he landed a low-level position in the Labor Department in 1961.

Like many liberals during the hopeful early 1960s, Moynihan cherished a "can-do" faith in the capacity of expert knowledge and governmental action to improve the quality of life. Having grown up in New York City in a broken family (his father left when Pat was 10 years old), he believed, as did many Catholic thinkers, that solid families were the basic institutions of social organization. In early 1963, he produced a report, titled "One-Third of a Nation," that documented very high percentages of young black men in single-parent families who failed mental and physical tests for the military draft. Later that year, he and Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer published a well-received book, Beyond the Melting Pot, that emphasized the staying power of family, ethnic, racial, and religious identifications in American life.

Though Moynihan helped develop LBJ's War on Poverty in 1964, and cheered enactment of a historic Civil Rights Act, also in 1964, he thought that much more had to be done to help black Americans attain anything resembling socioeconomic equality with whites. As he put it in a memo to Willard Wirtz, then secretary of labor, in April 1964, "The Negroes are asking for unequal treatment. More seriously, it may be that without unequal treatment, there is no way for them to achieve anything like equal status in the long run." With this idea in mind, one that seemed to prefigure what was later called affirmative action, he decided in December 1964 to write a report about low-income black family life in the United States.

With statistical aid from experts in the Labor Department--Moynihan was neither a sociologist nor a demographer--he started his research on January 1, 1965. Consulting scholars and civil rights activists, he also delved into major books concerned with African American history and contemporary race relations. These works, by W. E. B. DuBois, E. Franklin Frazier, Gunnar Myrdal, Kenneth Clark, and others, emphasized that a long history of white racism had savaged African American life. Within the amazingly short span of three months he completed a report titled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." Seventy-eight pages long, it consisted of 48 pages of text backed by 61 footnotes and an appendix of 24 pages of charts and tables. In March 1965, the Labor Department printed 100 copies of his work.

Moynihan aimed his in-house report at Johnson administration officials, not at the general public. The document did not divulge his name. Its title page carried the words, "For Official Use Only." But he was a well-read and convivial man who had cultivated useful friendships in Washington. In distributing his report, he fired off urgent memorandums to recipients. One such message, directed to LBJ, argued, "equal opportunity for Negroes [as promised in the War on Poverty and the 1964 Civil Rights Act] does not produce equal results--because the Negroes today are a grievously injured people who in fair and equal competition will by and large lose out." He reminded Johnson, "You were born poor. You were brought up poor. Yet you came of age full of ambition, energy, and ability. Because your father and mother gave it to you. The richest inheritance any child can have is a stable, loving, disciplined family life."

"The Negro Family" featured eye-catching prose--much of it in bold face or italics or both (attributes maintained herein)--supported by a wealth of clearly presented and accurate statistical data. It opened with the dramatic statement, "The United States is approaching a new crisis in race relations. …

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