Was Moynihan Wrong about Black Families?

Black Families

Was Moynihan Wrong about Black Families? Declining US marriages, coupled with growing numbers of “nonmarital” births, are the subject of considerable anxiety in the social policy literature. Such arrangements, it is argued, are ripping apart the social fabric and are a major cause of bad outcomes for boys…. This line of thinking is heavily racialized, and typically invokes the allegedly prophetic Moynihan Report of 1965. At the height of civil rights legislation, and escalating urban unrest.

Was Moynihan Wrong about Black Families?

(published as The Moynihan Report is Still Wrong
November 2, 2015 • Susan Greenbaum • African Americans, family in racismreview.com)

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a policy analyst for the Dept. of Labor. He wrote a research report on black poverty that concluded female-headed households were a major source of the problem. His controversial explanation shifted attention away from white racism and onto black “culture.” He expressed concern about black male unemployment, but his report suggested that African American parenting produced undesirable workers.

A matriarchy of African American mothers?

In 1965, 24% of black children lived in female headed households; by 2015 it had increased to 72%. Clearly, it seemed, Moynihan had been right that this was a dangerous and growing problem. In the 50th anniversary of the report, celebratory books, special journal issues, panels, conferences, and editorials have assigned much credibility to this belief.

Paul Ryan and Barack Obama both pay homage to the report, illustrating its wide ideological appeal. Exemplary of this trend is a set of articles from the spring 2015 issue of Education Next, a conservative online journal.Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks’ article is titled “Was Moynihan Right?” They present a dizzying array of facts and statistics that appear to answer the question affirmatively. I challenge that verdict.

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Moynihan’s “prescience” is monotonously intoned and rarely questioned, even though single-parenthood has increased in all ethnic categories and is heavily concentrated among families in poverty. Trend lines are similar, although rates have remained elevated for African Americans who have suffered consistently higher rates of poverty and unemployment. Moynihan made it a black thing, but it was more accurately a class thing.

Moynihan report essentially flawed?

His black-white comparisons failed to control for income, yielding misleading results both within and between groups. He considered black female-headed households to be inherently deviant and conducive to all kinds of pathological results. Based on one highly flawed statistic, he argued that it was a problem “feeding upon itself.” Critics in the 1960’s and 70s targeted these problems with his research, and the overly confident and florid tenor of the narrative he constructed. In the 1980s and since, these legitimate criticisms have been described instead as a vicious “smear campaign” by forces of “political correctness.” McLanahan and Jencks cheerfully repeat this canard in their effort to lionize Moynihan and his report.

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