What the Left and Right Both Get Wrong About the Moynihan Report

The 1965 document is a touchstone in the debate over black culture and the War on Poverty. The author's call for full employment and a welfare state, however, is mostly forgotten.
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Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a senator in 1977 (Library of Congress)

For months, Republicans have been saying that the Democrats' so-called "War on Poverty” is a failure, and that it is time for conservatives to break liberals' "monopoly" on the issue by joining the debate. Because they disagree about the fundamental causes of the problem, however, it has been impossible to have a reasonable dispute over solutions. GOP leaders routinely describe government as the very source of poverty—a "hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives," in Representative Paul Ryan's words. And though other countries spend far more on social welfare and have much less indigence, Republicans believe this spending has created a "tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work,” as Ryan put it in March. Thus in the name of helping the poor, anti-poverty conservatives advocate cutting and privatizing the safety net.

Liberals have attacked them as racist and uncaring, but, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded us, Democrats have often described the problem in near-identical terms. Numerous works have shown that the cultural explanation of poverty is ancient and goes well beyond partisan and ethnic-racial lines. Even during the Great Depression, many Americans blamed laziness for the joblessness and hardship abroad. Making the case for work over "the dole," Franklin D. Roosevelt called welfare a "narcotic" that would "induce[] a spiritual and moral disintegration to the national fiber" if made permanent. (Congress expected the small and heavily means-tested "relief" program they created at his request to disappear quickly.)

Conservatives have emphasized this bipartisan past and the non-racial character of their argument as well, insulted by liberals who take "culture" to be just a euphemism for race. They point, among other things, to the 1996 Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform, which both parties claimed would end "dependency" and various other ills, like the rise of "illegitimate" births. That did not happen, and poverty increased after the short dotcom boom, but the culture argument still has a strong constituency that believes we have just not gone far enough: Abolish the rest of the welfare state, and the poor will no longer be with us.

Few figures loom larger in the American poverty debate than Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who conservatives repeatedly say told liberals long ago that "the single most important determinant of poverty is family structure," as Ryan states in the opening to his recent 200-page critique of the War on Poverty. Moynihan, a liberal Democrat with a long, distinguished career as a policy intellectual and government official, grew up in a poor "broken family" and became one of the main planners and critics of the Kennedy-Johnson initiative. His 1965 report "The Negro Family" implicitly rebuked that effort, and grew into a scandal that has divided the left ever since. The controversy was so intense that reactions to the report filled a book one year later.

For decades, the right has loved to tell this story, arguing that the hostile reaction to Moynihan's prescient warning made research on the subject taboo for a generation, even as poverty's real cause, family breakdown, grew worse and worse. As George Will explained it, the attacks on Ryan's argument about the family, or "culture," is simply déjà vu. “For those who still make a living from race baiting and diverting the attention of the country from the facts about what produces multi-generational poverty," writes Jonathan Tobin, "the truth of Moynihan’s conclusions are still blasphemy.” The belief that someone as liberal and intelligent as Moynihan was silenced for arguing what conservatives like Ryan do now seems even to have convinced the right that welfare is a literal racket on both ends. Marc Thiessen and Robert Woodson speak of a "poverty-industrial complex" that Democrats maintain for profit, hiding all evidence that proves the "failure of the left's approach."

Contrary to myth, however, Moynihan's career was not destroyed; his report, which continues to generate liberal admiration, may have even sped his rise to influence and fame. Nor did it kill research on the family and poverty. Historian Steve Estes estimates that as many as 50 books and 500 journal articles were published on the subject just in the first 15 years after Moynihan's report.

Still, because Moynihan was vague on recommendations in "The Negro Family," the left has often depicted it as a neoconservative tract. Both sides would probably be surprised to read the author in the 1960s and to learn about his objectives for the report. Like many other Democrats later on, Moynihan shared America's reasonable but contradictory anxiety over the growth of single-parent homes, and some of the misconceptions about it. But he saw family break-up as the result of "structural," or economic, factors—not cultural ones. The pro-family conservatives who take his diagnosis as a prescription for laissez-faire capitalism turn the story upside down. If they knew what policies Moynihan hoped to spur with his report, they might view him as a Marxist radical to be forgotten, not a visionary martyr to remember. Moynihan stated these goals more than a few times, but new documents from his rich archive give a much fuller, clearer, and bolder illustration of his thinking and hopes.

Moynihan entered the Kennedy Administration during the worst recession since the 1930s, a cardinal political fact for a generation shaped by the Great Depression. He worked in the Labor Department, focusing on programs that sought to minimize unemployment. As the head of research and planning, Moynihan had years of experience looking at not just the macro-economy, our typical fascination, but also the micro-economy—i.e., what was happening to those parts of the country stranded by the fabled postwar economic boom. With a background in the labor movement and New York state government, Moynihan was not ignorant of conditions in blue-collar America. But the number of people laid off because of automation during these years of unprecedented growth—in some cases, like farming and coal, virtually an entire labor force—truly shocked him. Studying the problem, he became convinced that poverty amid prosperity was not a "paradox," as most said in the 1960s, but an inevitable result of the market's "creative destruction."

Far from accepting this condition, Moynihan fought for programs to mitigate it. In an endless torrent of memos, speeches, letters, and conversations, he pushed Democrats in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations to return to a goal they had pursued in the 1940s (which the party has since entirely abandoned): full employment—meaning, he said, “government as the employer of last resort.” This, Jason Scott Smith argues in a recent history, was the core of the New Deal: those hundreds and thousands of parks, schools, hospitals, bridges, roads, dams, and other public-works initiatives that put millions to work and saved many of the unemployed from absolute poverty during the Great Depression.

Moynihan knew the shortcomings of those programs, which were often terribly funded because of opposition to deficit-spending. But he also recognized as essentially utopian the curious, deep, and unspoken American belief that the economy, when bullish, somehow naturally produces a good job for everyone who wants one. Today, that notion seems more questionable than ever, as new multimillion-dollar companies often employ a mere handful of workers, compared to the "factory towns" of a century ago; local and state governments, at great cost to budgets and revenue, take credit for “creating” jobs that are merely poached from other regions of the country; and job applications outnumber openings by astounding factors. But this is part of an old, long process. Moynihan saw that America's narrow definition and pursuit of macro-economic growth, which became the catchall solution of both parties in the 1950s, had increasingly led to the destruction of traditional ladders of social mobility. Meanwhile, the "natural" level of unemployment, masked by statistics that excluded millions, kept climbing. If America really valued hard work and opportunity, Moynihan said, using language that echoed FDR's 1944 State of the Union, jobs ought to be a "right," not a scarcity.

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Peter-Christian Aigner is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. He is writing a biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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