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Book Discussion: Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle Over Black Family Life—From LBJ to Obama

June 11, 2010 // 11:00am12:30pm
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James T. Patterson, Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus, Brown University

James Patterson first became interested in Daniel Patrick Moynihan because of his early efforts to establish social programs in the United States, particularly the Family Assistance Plan proposed in 1969 under Richard Nixon. The Moynihan Report itself, he said, engaged his attention because of the stark picture it presented: 26 per cent of black births were out of wedlock in 1963, while only three per cent of white births were. (More recently, the rates have shifted for both races: 72 per cent of black births compared with 41 per cent of white births.) Patterson cited the importance of these figures, he said, not out of moral concern, but because of the high correlation between non-marital birth and poverty. Overall, there has been a long-term trend throughout the developed world of a "decline of marriage." The problem is not necessarily that poor women are having more children, but only that they are not getting marrying. This is a problem, he argued, because the vast majority of single families are headed by women, many of whom come from lower-class backgrounds and lack the education and skills they need to get decent jobs. Thus, the evidence shows, non-marital births lead to a cycle of poverty.

What was the Moynihan Report? Written in 1965, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," as it was actually entitled, was initially intended as an in-house document, with few copies printed. It was meant to provide a "diagnostic, not prescriptive" view of the causes of poverty among African Americans. Since few people actually read the report and learned about it mostly from commentary, it acquired a reputation for being moralistic in tone, but Patterson argued that this was not Moynihan's intent.

The report took on a life of its own only after the Watts riot broke out in Los Angeles in the late summer of 1965. According to Patterson, the report was leaked to journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novack shortly after the riots. The press quickly dubbed it the "Moynihan Report" and incorrectly interpreted it as President Johnson's response to the riots. It was widely criticized by civil rights leaders for being too "coolly analytical" and failing to offer solutions. To many, Moynihan was "blaming the victim" for poverty and family fragmentation.

Ironcially, Patterson noted, the context for social reform in 1965 was highly propitious, witnessing the greatest outpouring of liberal legislation since the New Deal-- until furor broke out over the report. In later years, Moynihan spoke of the "moment lost" because of the scandal. As the situation for black families continued to worsen in the 1980's, more reformers and community leaders came to agree that something needed to be done within the black community.

Patterson concluded by reviewing the broad decline of marriage, noting that 65 per cent of black children are born into single-parent families. High incarceration rates, persistent poverty and a host of other problems contribute to making marriage difficult among African Americans. One hopeful model he pointed to, however, is that of the Harlem Children's Zone, which focuses on education, along with dense service structures and early intervention, as a means of eliminating poverty.

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