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.

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.

Influenced by Catholic social doctrine and European policy thinkers, Moynihan, a fierce patriot and optimist, even worried that America's deep-seated individualism created a "values" framework that inclined the nation too easily to social Darwinism. Other industrial democracies faced the same technological innovations and foreign competition, but they did not let the market rain havoc on so many lives, because most of them committed to some version of a full-employment policy during or after the Depression. The United States, he never tired saying, nearly did, too.

For years, then, Moynihan campaigned to get the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations to consider adopting similar programs and to explicitly reclaim this goal. He was particularly impressed by Sweden’s cradle-to-grave welfare state, with 2 to 3 percent unemployment and steady economic growth. As he traveled, read, and studied what other countries accomplished, Moynihan also became enamored of another widely legislated idea: the "family allowance" (cash transfers used to bolster low wages). These two policies together, he said, had led to the most remarkable fact about modern poverty: that the postwar Europeans "solved it."

But JFK and LBJ were not interested in committing large government resources to such policies, and Moynihan lost his biggest fight, to get these ideas into the War on Poverty. That’s when he decided to write "The Negro Family." Originally, he included the two policy recommendations. But fearing Johnson would reject the memo outright, he chose in the final report to just emphasize poverty's cultural devastation alone, using apocalyptic and occasionally controversial language. The central message of the 78-page document was that more than 200 years of the "worst" form of slavery in history, and nearly a century of Jim Crow and Great Depression levels of unemployment and poverty had nearly destroyed the black community. So great was the damage that now even the basic unit of society, the family, was coming apart.

Scholars have shown that the 1950s nuclear family was an outlier in history, not the rule. But Americans shaped by the postwar "cult of domesticity" did not know that, and it is important to note that Moynihan was not ringing the alarm as a social conservative. He believed that poverty was concentrated among large families, white and black, and that these conditions were leading to break-up and potential social dysfunction. Years of research have confirmed his suspicion: break-up can indeed be a trigger for poverty, although it is most often a correlate, not a cause. More typically, as he suggested, the relationship is the other way around: Money problems exacerbate the difficulties of marriage and child rearing. Conservatives have often reversed this part of his message, or ignored it.

Believing that Moynihan saw black poverty as merely the result of deviant family norms, some on the left objected to the report violently. Some also reacted against the report following an intellectual tradition they had begun to strongly reject, which emphasized the danger of society creating and tolerating lower-class "pathologies" (even though, as Moynihan later repeated in disbelief and exasperation, civil-rights leaders and liberals had used the same rhetoric in making the case for integration and social reform).

Whatever its particular shortcomings, however, the fact remains that Moynihan wrote the report to capitalize on a special political moment in time. He wanted to use the prestige of the civil-rights movement, and the new liberal supermajority in Congress, to get both a targeted jobs-and-income program for blacks—the original goal of the March on Washington—and to build support for a colorblind national family income and full-employment policy. Years of appalling economic statistics, he explained to friends, had done nothing to frighten the government or move the public. By humanizing poverty in terms of family breakdown and dramatizing it as a crisis with dangerous social costs, Moynihan hoped to shock the administration into bolder legislation. Naively, it seems, he believed that America's widespread devotion to "the family" might be a breakthrough concept around which to unite left and right. Freedom was not enough. More would have to be done.

For a moment, it appeared more would be. One month after he sent the report, the White House asked Moynihan to draft Johnson's famous commencement at Howard University, a speech that radically identified the interests of America with its long-exploited black population. Moynihan's version went even further than the final edition, but the president's address echoed several remarkable, heretical ideas that bore his signature: most importantly, that the nation's cherished ideal of equal opportunity was insufficient, and that whites had inherited ultimate responsibility for the conditions of their black neighbors. Attempting to "leapfrog the civil-rights movement," as Moynihan later put it, Johnson announced a conference to be held at the White House that fall, inviting leaders to draw up legislation for a new, expanded effort to get "equality as a fact and as a result." Even today, "radical" stuff.

But after the massive riot in Los Angeles that summer, the White House leaked copies of the still-unpublished memo to the press to demonstrate what the administration thought about the problems of the black ghetto. Articles explaining that the report saw poverty as a problem of broken families and emphasized that "Negroes as a group are not able to compete on even terms," as the New York Times reported, ruined Moynihan's nascent prestige on the left. Johnson's fear of losing another China also prompted him to escalate the war in Vietnam, just as he vowed this "next and ... more profound" stage of his "Great Society," meaning that domestic reform would once again take a back seat to foreign policy.

Moynihan's hope for a grand bipartisan coalition was not entirely vain. Leading Republicans like John Lindsay, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon turned to him for counsel. As president, Nixon even backed legislation to establish a modest income floor for families. The GOP's liberal wing pushed for it hard. (Conservatives like Ronald Reagan wanted something like the 1996 reform.) But history did not go Moynihan's way.

Embittered, he blamed the scandal over his report for destroying a once-in-a-generation chance to begin a new era of social-democratic legislation in America—which liberals blew, he said, by focusing on race, not class. We can debate that view, but one thing is for sure: A conservative he was not. Moynihan was genuinely concerned about family break-up and its results, but his understanding of the problem and solutions were radically different from that of the right today.

For that matter, they seem far outside the Democratic mainstream, too. That’s a shame, because Moynihan had a keen grasp of the long-term structural factors that form the bedrock of our social mobility crisis. That reality will not go away, even if another short-term boom consigns the issue to the back pages again. Growth is necessary, but "opportunity" is cruel rhetoric unless Americans can find employment at transportable wages, and make use of government programs that actually give them a hand up, not just a stigmatized lifeline. Moynihan was no left-wing fanatic. He simply came to realize that a nation must spend to create genuine full employment, and that social welfare can empower those without means to become independent, productive economic actors. The choice is between a virtuous circle of jobs, investment, and growth, or a vicious cycle of austerity, dependency, inequality, and low demand. Gutting the safety net does not create jobs, end poverty, change family demographics, or increase wages and consumption—as the 1996 welfare reform teaches. That is the Moynihan report we should be thinking about.