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Marion S. Trikosko, Wikimedia Commons
The report on black families in America written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1965 is still stirring debates about public policy and family structure a half-century later.

In the half-century since Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a report on the instability and economic challenges of black families in America, some experts have used it to call for increased economic and social-policy supports, while others have used it to call for abandonment of such supports.

"The report itself certainly fueled a lot of controversy — it's infamous in that way," said Deirdre Bloome, assistant professor of sociology and faculty associate at the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center. The report got mired in controversy early on and its momentum was stalled, although Moynihan was working on the war on poverty and probably thought of the report as a pitch for a jobs program, she said. Instead, it was criticized as "blaming-the-victim rhetoric."

Although viewpoints are different, the impact of the report lingers. The progressive Council of Contemporary Families and the Institute for Women's Policy Research on Thursday jointly published an online symposium that disputes Moynihan's notion "that the fundamental obstacle to racial equality was the instability of black families, and especially the prevalence of single-mother families."

Meanwhile, more conservative Education Next partnered with the Hoover Institution, the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to publish several articles on the report and hosted a panel discussion and a keynote address by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

That's in addition to dozens of recent articles on the topic. Whether Moynihan, who died in 2003, got it right or not depends on who dissects it.

Blacks in 1965

Moynihan wrote "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" as a sociologist and then-assistant secretary of the U.S. Labor Department during Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency. The report looked at persistent challenges facing African-American families, including poverty, lack of jobs, crime, substance abuse and low education attainment. He focused largely on family stability, pointing out that nearly a fourth of black families were headed by single mothers. Moynihan tied broken families to increased use of public assistance, poverty and other issues.

The findings could have applied to others historically, as well, said Brad Wilcox, executive director of the National Marriage Project and a scholar with the Institute for Family Studies. White Irish immigrants, for example, had also experienced high levels of nonmarital child-bearing and single parenthood in the past, creating a comparable situation, he said.

"It's important for us to see that in many ways, it's not a racial issue," said Wilcox. "It's about how do we help working-class and poor Americans realize more stable and happy families. If we can do that, it will also help bridge the racial divide in American life."

Wilcox said that Moynihan's agenda was quite progressive for its time and stressed not only bolstering family structure, but also strengthening employment opportunities for African-Americans, especially the men.

But much of that got lost in the discussion of whether the report was racist.

In an article for Education Next, Princeton sociology professor Sara McLanahan and Harvard sociology professor Christopher Jencks make points about the 50-year-old data used. "Single mother" referred solely to marital status, but didn't say whether children lived in cohabiting households that included both parents, for instance. The term usually referred to women who were formerly married, whereas today it often means never married. And before 1968, data on black families included all non-whites, so it often included Asians, Native Americans and others.

The drivers?

The report's main legacy "has been to focus attention on strengthening marriage as the best route to reducing poverty and inequality. In fact, this was a preoccupation of Moynihan throughout his subsequent political career," concludes a report for the Council on Contemporary Families by University of Maryland sociology professor Philip N. Cohen, IWPR study director Jeffrey Hayes and his coauthor colleagues, Heidi Hartmann and Chandra Childers. The data don't justify that focus, they said.

"Historic changes in family structure do pose many challenges for families, but the economic trends over the half century since Moynihan wrote largely reflect other forces — forces that are more amenable to policy intervention than family structure," they wrote.

Their list includes creation of more job opportunities, better wages and antidiscrimination policies, among others. Creating more affordable child care and lowering incarceration would also reduce family instability, they said, adding that Moynihan's dire predictions fell short.

They cite the fact single motherhood has increased sharply for blacks and whites but poverty has decreased. In 1967, more than 60 percent of single mothers were poor, but that number is now 35 percent. Far more African-Americans graduate high school than did in the 1960s and college completion is way up, as well. Besides that, they wrote, juvenile crime for blacks and whites has fallen even as out-of-wedlock birth has climbed for both.

“Yes, the changes in family structure that concerned Moynihan have continued. Single parent families have risen, becoming widespread among whites as well as other groups. But single parent families 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,” a CCF summary noted.

Jason Riley, a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute and contributor to the Wall Street Journal, has written a book called "Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed." He sees it differently.

In a Journal article (paywall), he writes that overall political gains made by blacks have not reached "the black underclass, which by several important measures — including income, academic achievement and employment — has stagnated or lost ground over the past half century. And while the civil-rights establishment and black political leaders continue to deny it, family structure offers a much more plausible explanation of these outcomes than does residual white racism."

More than one cause

Bloome said most social scientists agree that family structure changes are a combination of economic and social factors. But from a policy perspective, there's more controversy. Some push for family structure supports that bolster marriage and others say efforts must emphasize economic supports like employment programs.

McLanahan and Jencks wrote that "growing up without both biological parents is clearly associated with worse average outcomes for children than growing up with them. Specifically, children growing up with a single mother are exposed to more family instability and complexity, they have more behavior problems, and they are less likely to finish high school or attend college than children raised by both of their parents. On the other hand, these differences in children’s behavior and success might well be traceable to differences that would exist even if the biological father were present."

The male, sole-breadwinner model held sway when Moynihan wrote his report, though black women have been more likely to be part of the work force as well, compared to white women. Now, most women work, regardless of race, Bloome said.

"That means women are increasingly important in terms of who's supporting our families and that's particularly true for African-Americans, so if we are discussing the kind of shift toward single families happening among them, what kind of jobs women have and how much women are being paid in those jobs is extremely important for economic equality between African-Americans and whites," Bloome said.

The policy approach debate may continue. As jurisprudence professor Robert George of Princeton and Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, put it in one of the Education Next pieces: "The facts about the collapse of the family among America’s poor are deeply discomfiting for the Left and the Right alike. They are uncomfortable for the Left because liberals don’t want to acknowledge what they show us about the importance of the family structure and about the need to reinforce it. And they are uncomfortable for the Right because conservatives don’t want to acknowledge what they show us about the destructive effects of persistent poverty, and about the difficulty of helping people rise out of it.

"These are facts that suggest both the importance of the family and the need for public action, and so they are perfectly suited to being ignored by everyone in our politics."

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco