Jewish World Review April 1, 2003 / 28 Adar II 5763
Remembering Moynihan's mind
I knew, as an African-American baby boomer, that I was not supposed to like Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
After all, he wrote that inflammatory work, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" (1965), which singled out the breakup of black families as a major impediment to black advancement.
Liberal academics and black activists savaged the book and Moynihan, calling both "racist" and other impolite epithets.
As a college freshman, I, too, thought the book's generalities were a bit too sweeping. Sure, we had a poverty problem in black America, but civil rights reforms were opening new opportunities that would drive black poverty down from more than 60 percent to about 30 percent over the next two decades. I defy you to name any other major racial group on the planet that progressed so far, so fast.
Family breakdown seemed to be too simplistic of an explanation for black poverty. On the other hand, poverty certainly makes it harder to keep a family together.
Nevertheless, I appreciated Moynihan for bringing up the issue. I didn't always agree with what he thought, but he always gave me something to think about.
Moynihan, who died last Wednesday at 76, eagerly invited criticism. Not the name-calling sort of criticism that you hear sometimes on radio call-in shows, but the genuinely constructive criticism that advances ideas, not just arguments.
He was, among other distinctions, one of the most important and controversial minds and voices on the front lines of racial, ethnic and social policy in post-World War II America.
On year after passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, he shifted the debate on race from one about rights to the role of family in predicting a lifetime of poverty.
In 1963, he co-authored "Beyond the Melting Pot," which exposed the durability of ethnic identity in the United States despite widespread assimilation and set the stage for today's "celebrate diversity" movement.
A few years later, as an aide to Richard Nixon, he persuaded the Republican president to give a speech advocating a downright radical idea, the Family Assistance Plan. To stop fathers from leaving home so their families could qualify for welfare, the plan would provide guaranteed income to the unemployed and supplements to the working poor.
Nixon made the speech, sent the legislation to Capitol Hill, astonished Democrats by appearing to snatch a key issue away from them, then, he let it die, with the impoverished still waiting for aid.
Nevertheless, Moynihan's concepts would lead years later to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the welfare reform legislation of 1996, which, characteristically, Moynihan, as a fourth-term senator from New York, strongly opposed on principle, despite its being promoted by Democratic President Bill Clinton, because it imposed time limits on job-seeking welfare recipients.
News of Moynihan's death saddened me because it brought his inquiring mind to a halt just as he was pursuing more research into the relationship between marriage and poverty.
Perhaps the fact that he made a success of himself the hard way after being abandoned by his dad and reared by a single mom during the Depression gave him special sympathies for the subject.
But, during two interviews with him over the past two years, he sounded as puzzled as ever over the relationship between family breakdown and poverty and what other factors might lead to each.
The alarms he sounded when 26 percent of black children were being born out of wedlock are now being sounded over white out-of-wedlock birth rates, which are higher than 26 percent and getting higher, while the black rate has leveled off at 69 percent. Yet, curiously, no one that I know of refers to the problem as "pathological" among whites the way Moynihan did when he was studying blacks.
Out-of-wedlock birth rates are climbing throughout the industrialized world, he also found. But they are not always accompanied by growth in poverty. In Scandinavia, for example, more than half of all births are to unmarried mothers, but a much larger percentage of them live in stable relationships with the men who fathered their children. Generous government family support programs, even more generous than those Moynihan proposed, appear to be replacing the traditional breadwinner role of fathers.
When I presented these paradoxes to Moynihan, he did not argue. He nodded and, with a twinkling smile, admitted that the topic cried out for more study. Pat didn't always have the answers, but he seldom failed to raise the right questions.
"And now, goodbye," he told Nixon's White House staff when he left in 1970. "It really has been good to know you."
You, too, Pat.
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