Revisiting the Moynihan Report

In the fifty years since this famous report on black families, things have gotten worse.

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The Urban Institute revisits Daniel Moynihan's The Negro Family: The Case For National Action and finds that a lot has changed. Mostly for the worse:

These demographic trends are stunning. Five decades after Moynihan's work, white families exhibit the same rates of nonmarital childbearing and single parenting as black families did in the 1960s when Moynihan sounded his alarm. Meanwhile, the disintegration of the black nuclear family continued apace. That the decline of traditional families occurred across racial and ethnic groups indicates that factors driving the decline do not lie solely within the black community but in the larger social and economic context. Nevertheless, the consequences of these trends in family structure may be felt disproportionately among blacks as black children are far more likely to be born into and raised in father-absent families than are white children.

I've never really gotten the hubbub over the Moynihan Report. It seems pretty clear to me that in America, parenting is about resources. That families that can bring to bear two streams of resources have better outcomes, on balance, than those who only have one strikes me as logical and predictable. I don't say that as a black person, but as parent.

Moreover unlike people who believe that black people think reading makes you white, or think that blacks somehow like being poor, Moynihan was never confused about the root causes of the black communities predicament:

That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary -- a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have. That the Negro community has not only survived, but in this political generation has entered national affairs as a moderate, humane, and constructive national force is the highest testament to the healing powers of the democratic ideal and the creative vitality of the Negro people. But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.

Moynihan believed that the crisis of the black family was the result of having been "battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice and uprooting." Three centuries of injustice," wrote Moynihan, "have brought about deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro American." In my experience people love to quote Moynihan's thoughts on the crisis of the black family. Quoting Moynihan on the how and why of the crisis? Not so much.

The Urban Institute's report demonstrates that the battering Moynihan highlights continues into the present. Last week, I argued that you can't really analogize the "black middle class" with the "white middle class" or the "black elite" with the "white elite" in any real meaningful sense. You can see why in this chart.

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To summarize:

The historical segregation of neighborhoods along racial lines fueled the geographic concentration of poverty and the severe distress of very high-poverty neighborhoods. As Massey and Denton demonstrated in American Apartheid (1993), discriminatory policies and practices confining urban blacks--among whom the incidence of poverty was markedly higher than for whites--to a limited selection of city neighborhoods produced much higher poverty rates than in white neighborhoods. Subsequent job losses and rising unemployment pushed poverty in many black neighborhoods even higher.

Today, despite the significant decline in residential segregation, virtually all high-poverty neighborhoods (neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of the population is poor) are majority-minority, and blacks are over five times more likely than whites to live in high-poverty neighborhoods.4 Poor white households are much more geographically dispersed than poor black or Hispanic households. In fact, the average high-income black person lives in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate than the average low-income white person.

It's worth considering the message a society sends to its citizens with data like this. If you are an African-American aspiring to affluence, you can expect to live in a neighborhood that is about as impoverished as the average poor white person.