50 years after the Moynihan report: Hell in a hand basket?

Update, March 14, 2015: In response to a column by Nicholas Kristof, Heidi Hartmann and I published this letter in the New York Times, based on our report.

I had the great pleasure of working with Heidi Hartmann, Jeffrey Hayes, and Chandra Childers — from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) — on a briefing paper marking the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. The report is published jointly by the Council on Contemporary Families and IWPR, as part of a symposium called Moynihan+50. Our report is here, the full symposium (PDF) is here.

(This isn’t the first time the Moynihan Report has been revisited, of course. Here’s the transcript of a 1992 hearing that featured Senator Moynihan — and a brilliant statement by Stephanie Coontz — before Pat Schroeder.)

Here is our executive summary:

Moynihan’s Half Century: Have We Gone to Hell in a Hand Basket?

In The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, published in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously argued that the fundamental obstacle to racial equality was the instability of Black families, and especially the prevalence of single-mother families. That same year, he predicted that the spread of single-parent families would result not only in rising poverty and inequality but also in soaring rates of crime and violence. Half a century later, we report that the changes in family structure that concerned him have continued, becoming widespread among Whites as well, but that they do not explain recent trends in poverty and inequality. In fact, a number of the social ills Moynihan assumed would accompany these changes have actually decreased.

  • Even as single-parent families have become more prevalent in all race/ethnic groups, especially among Black families, poverty rates have fallen, partly because of effective welfare programs, and partly because of increased education and job opportunities (especially for women). In 1967 more than 60 percent of single-mother families were poor. Today, according to new, adjusted poverty calculations, that poverty rate has been almost halved, falling to 35 percent.
  • During the period of greatest change in family structure, educational levels rose for Black children and young adults. Today, almost 90 percent of Black young adults are high school graduates, compared with only about 50 percent in the 1960s; Black college completion rates have doubled, from less than 10 to almost 20 percent.
  • Since 1994 juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent for Blacks and Whites alike, even though marriage rates have continued to fall and the proportion of children born out of wedlock has reached 40 percent.
  • Although it is true that single-parent families are more likely to be poor than two-parent ones, we show that fluctuations in poverty rates since the 1990s cannot be explained by changes in family structure.
  • Marriage is no protection against racial inequality. Black and Latino children in married-couple families are, respectively, three- and four-times more likely to be poor than White children in such families.

One of the legacies of the Moynihan Report has been to focus attention on changing family structure, rather than on other factors that are more amenable to policy intervention. While marriage promotion programs have proven ineffective, evidence suggests that increasing employment opportunities and wage levels, anti-discrimination policies, and social safety nets have considerable potential to reduce poverty, increase economic and educational opportunity, and decrease racial inequality.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

7 responses to “50 years after the Moynihan report: Hell in a hand basket?

  1. Chris Wienke

    The American Prospect did a nice story on the single mother, child poverty myth. The percentage of U.S. kids living in single mother families is roughly equivalent to the percentage of kids doing the same in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. But in 2000, over 50% of American kids living in single mother families were in poverty, compared to just 8-12% of their peers in Scandinavia. That doesn’t seem like a tangle of pathology to me. What’s unhealthy is U.S welfare policy.


    • vijay

      I see such comments and remarks in this website; i have argued that comparison of US with Scandinavia is meaningless; the population of Scandinavia has been (until recently) monoracial. A large number of single Scandinavian mother cohabit with biological fathers and marry them.

      In contrast, the US is a multiracial society; to begin with, a large proportion of children in black, Hispanic and Native Indian (close to 40%) of the children live in poverty, independent of whether they live with single parents or both parents. Some 55-60% of children in single mother families are of Hispanic or black origin. The poverty rates of children living with single white mothers are lower.

      Added to this is the fact that single mothers may be divorce, separated, widows, or just never married. There is not much common between these families.

      In summary, poverty causes poverty; race is a critical factor; single mother families where the mother was never married or did not cohabit, is a third factor. Direct comparisons with cohesive societies such as Sweden , Finland, and Japan or best avoided. The US welfare policy is quite favorable ; you can read Tino Sanadaji’s blog to read about welfare to single mothers in Sweden. Government payments are almost nonexistent, especially for unmarried cohabiting mothers.


      • Race is certainly a critical factor but not in the way you’re arguing here. There’s a sizable welfare state literature showing how racial animosity has stunted the growth of benefits for low income families in the US. Ironically, its intimately related to factors like the Moynihan report. The Swedish public, for example, has more trust that low income mothers will spend the money wisely. There’s no real reason to think that low income mothers in the US are any different but racialized perceptions of “welfare queens” result in less public support for them. This is a huge part of the reason why poverty rates are much lower in Scandinavian countries.


        • vijay

          “The Swedish public, for example, has more trust that low income mothers will spend the money wisely.”

          I do not even understand this. Most people who are commenting here do not have an understanding of the Swedish welfare state or Swedish demography. There is no specific Swedish support for lower income women with children. In addition, most of the single Swedish women with children are living with unmarried spouses, and as such few of the unmarried women get any special benefits (Swedish benefits are strictly means tested). If the above commentors are talking about Barnbidrag,
          it is for all children, and not targeted towards single mothers. There are three different compensation levels for the parental benefit. The first is a sickness benefit level and is based on income to qualify for sickness cash benefit, (sjukpenninggrundande inkomst). If you have had a low or no income, benefit at the basic level is paid instead. These first two levels are paid for 390 days. The third compensation level is referred to as the minimum level and applies to the remaining 90 days. Then there is gender equality bonus, and maternal leave. That is it!

          Please read the above benefits, and comment how unmarried women with children get any special benefits.Instead, a growing percentage of Swedish welfare budget that goes to families with children go to immigrants who are about 11-17% of the population. They take in between 30-40% of all benefits paid to families.


  2. vijay

    I am going to make a comment that will most probably be deleted. Moynihan was not the first to report on family issues; W.E.B dubois reported it in [1899] “The Philadelphia Negro, introduction by Elijah Anderson”: University of Pennsylvania Press. Moynihan never talked about going to “hell in handbasket” which is your embellishment.

    Since you are overcome with vapors about “the tangle of pathology” let me quote directly from the first page of the chapter.

    “In “essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male”

    “There is, presumably, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement. However, it is clearly a disadvantage for a minority group to
    be operating on one principle, while the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with, is operating on another.”

    Thus Moynihan is saying that the population is not responsible for its plight; the argument of the Stephanie Coontz rehash seems to be that it is OK to continue along the path as it has not gotten worse.

    “In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of. those who escape do so for one generation only: as
    things now are, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again. That is not the least vicious aspect of the world that white America has made for the Negro.”

    It is clear that Moynihan recognizes two things: first, the children are caught in this circle, and second, it makes their lives perilously close to poverty. This would have been clear if you had plotted 100-299% of poverty levels for women-led families, and their children.

    In addition, this chapter makes so many comments of value, way beyond a poverty level analysis, among other things:
    1. Disparity in educational attainment between boys and girls (this can be extrapolated from blacks to all families today)
    2. Workforce distribution differences between males and females
    3. Delinquency among youth
    4. alienation, and the smaller number of men as compared to women in 30+ age group
    5. increased segregation.

    There are several issues with your paper:

    1. a lack of increase in poverty and crime with increase in single family is now considered to be a “success”
    2. Figure 1 clearly shows that female-headed poverty rates (OPM) has not changed at all. Most female-headed families are one step away from poverty.
    3.Figure 4 is meaningless; unemployment rates relate to GDP, and only tangentially related to whether you are from or head a single parent family. Confusing economic parameters with sociological parameters seems to eb a hallmark here.
    4. If Figures 5 and 7 does not demonstrate what Moynihan says (and break your heart) then I don’t know what does. We are supposed to be cheerful that it has not gotten worse since 1994?
    5. You need to plot Figure 10 after normalizing by total number of arrests. This figure is particularly tragin given the very high incarcrated population in the 90s and 2000s.

    Finally, the upper classes have made marriage a gated community for people with a college degree and privilege, while cheering on the others to be unmarried; while throwing a few dimes as welfare, they argue in collges that it is OK to be unmarried and poor. This is th most tragic thing about the Stephanie coontz volume.


  3. Isn’t this at least in part an in issue about the relative effect of race versus family structure, and the interaction between them, on the odds of poverty at the level of the household/family and at the level of the child? That seems to be what the last two bullet points are about. So what are the numbers?


    • vijay

      The last two bullets do not:
      1. Unemployment is strongly related to GDP and economic performance; for example, a report came out this morning that said unemployment is 5.5%; there is no way to correlate that any form of family formation.
      2. The statement “marriage is no protection against inequality” and the next line about poverty rate among races have no relation. We already know races differ in poverty, and economic success, and this was true forever, Moynihan or no Moynihan.. Moynihan report was only about the blacks. The convoluted argument here that “children in unmarried family households have increased in all races, but we have not economically fallen apart”, and hence is a negator of Moynihan report, is just an awful conclusion. It goes back to the college-educated privileged people of this country gating marriage while throwing a few pennies at the unmarried family households, and saying “look it is not so bad after all”.


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