Family issues: 50 years ago

“When Liberals Blew It” was the headline on Nicholas Kristof’s March 12 column in The New York Times.  The headline referred to the moment fifty years ago when liberals treated Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a racist for proposing in a Labor Department report—eventually known as the “Moynihan Report”—that family disarray and the growth of single-parent households among African-Americans were reaching what would now be called a “tipping point.”  The leading factors countering black poverty—primarily male employment—were in danger of losing traction.  National action was imperative.

That Moynihan was right in broaching the delicate subject of the relationship of family breakdown and poverty has been acknowledged all over the place—half a century too late, some might say, but in fact the acknowledgements have come steadily over the decades.  Kristof, one of our best columnists, was condensing a complicated story into a brief column, which didn’t do justice to all the details.  One liberal voice, for instance, that didn’t “blow it” was Commonweal’s. 

The Negro Family: The Case for National Action was originally a Department of Labor document “for official use only.”  Completed in March 1965 by Assistant Secretary of Labor Moynihan and colleagues, it was the basis for one of President Lyndon Johnson’s boldest speeches on behalf of political and economic equality for African Americans, given in June 1965 at Howard University’s commencement.  Made fully public, however, in the context of the August 1965 Watts riot, the report became the target of fierce controversy. 

In early September, Commonweal published a lead editorial recognizing that anything dealing, for example, with rates of out-of-wedlock births among blacks risked giving fuel to racists but that the report, nonetheless, deserved full attention.  One month later, the magazine published an extraordinarily comprehensive and measured article by the distinguished sociologist Herbert J. Gans on the report.  Gans noted its weaknesses but stressed the importance of its underlying premise: justice for American blacks would not be achieved unless assuring political rights was complemented with measures to assure socioeconomic equality.  Putting it bluntly in language that remains controversial today, Gans welcomed the report for insisting on equality of results as well as of opportunity.    

By mid-November the editors were expressing pained dismay at the onslaught of misleading attacks on the report and its author, despite the fact that its concerns had been echoed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and other black leaders.  And truth to tell, Commonweal was not alone. The New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, and America were similarly receptive to the report.  A number of critics, like Christopher Jencks in The New York Review of Books, were respectful of Moynihan and impatient with his assailants. 

Nor was the report beyond criticism.  Its generalizations, exaggerations, and rhetorical flourishes might have been forgiven in a less tumultuous period than one of urban riots, war in Vietnam, growing student and black power militancy, sexual revolution, and burgeoning feminism.  Yes, “liberals blew it,” if you take all of that into account as part of the liberal sixties. 

Perhaps of equal importance, liberals also blew it years later when the alarming patterns Moynihan highlighted became more alarming and increasingly characteristic of whites as well as blacks.  In 1965, twenty-five percent of black children were born to unmarried mothers, eight times the white rate; today forty percent of all children are born to unmarried mothers.

Having largely conceded “family values” to conservatives and the New Religious Right, liberals or at least liberal thinkers and opinion-makers recoiled at anything threatening to take marriage and family structure seriously as matters of social policy.  You had to have a thick skin to argue as a liberal that growing up in a two-parent family was something that our economy, our government, and our culture should promote.  Many of the same ideological restraints on discussion continue to operate today, as shown by the dichotomy between material resources and “norms” that runs through much of the dotCommonweal discussions below taking off from a column by David Brooks.

But that is a topic for another post.  

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Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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