Day By Day

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Coming to Terms with Moynihan -- Kay Hymowitz on the Black Family

Kay Hymowitz has a superb article on the Black family in the latest City Journal. She writes:

Read through the megazillion words on class, income mobility, and poverty in the recent New York Times series “Class Matters” and you still won’t grasp two of the most basic truths on the subject: 1. entrenched, multigenerational poverty is largely black; and 2. it is intricately intertwined with the collapse of the nuclear family in the inner city.

By now, these facts shouldn’t be hard to grasp. Almost 70 percent of black children are born to single mothers. Those mothers are far more likely than married mothers to be poor, even after a post-welfare-reform decline in child poverty. They are also more likely to pass that poverty on to their children. Sophisticates often try to dodge the implications of this bleak reality by shrugging that single motherhood is an inescapable fact of modern life, affecting everyone from the bobo Murphy Browns to the ghetto “baby mamas.” Not so; it is a largely low-income—and disproportionately black—phenomenon. The vast majority of higher-income women wait to have their children until they are married. The truth is that we are now a two-family nation, separate and unequal—one thriving and intact, and the other struggling, broken, and far too often African-American.

She goes on to discuss the multitude of ways America's opinion makers, in government, in academia, in the press, and most especially activists, have systematically evaded confronting the implications of the Moynihan Report of forty years ago.

Liberal advocates had two main ways of dodging the subject of family collapse while still addressing its increasingly alarming fallout. The first, largely the creation of Marian Wright Edelman, who in 1973 founded the Children’s Defense Fund, was to talk about children not as the offspring of individual mothers and fathers responsible for rearing them, but as an oppressed class living in generic, nebulous, and never-to-be-analyzed “families.” Framing the problem of ghetto children in this way, CDF was able to mount a powerful case for a host of services, from prenatal care to day care to housing subsidies, in the name of children’s developmental needs, which did not seem to include either a stable domestic life or, for that matter, fathers. Advocates like Edelman might not have viewed the collapsing ghetto family as a welcome occurrence, but they treated it as a kind of natural event, like drought, beyond human control and judgment. As recently as a year ago, marking the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, CDF announced on its website: “In 2004 it is morally and economically indefensible that a black preschool child is three Times as likely to depend solely on a mother’s earnings.” This may strike many as a pretty good argument for addressing the prevalence of black single-mother families, but in CDF-speak it is a case for federal natural-disaster relief.


Whe second way not to talk about what was happening to the ghetto family was to talk instead about teen pregnancy. In 1976 the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood’s research arm, published “Eleven Million Teenagers: What Can Be Done About the Epidemic of Adolescent Pregnancy in the United States?” It was a report that launched a thousand programs. In response to its alarms, HEW chief Joseph Califano helped push through the 1978 Adolescent Health Services and Pregnancy Prevention and Care Act, which funded groups providing services to pregnant adolescents and teen moms. Nonprofits, including the Center for Population Options (now called Advocates for Youth), climbed on the bandwagon. The Ford and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations showered dollars on organizations that ran school-based health clinics, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation set up the Too Early Childbearing Network, the Annie E. Casey Foundation sponsored “A Community Strategy for Reaching Sexually Active Adolescents,” and the Carnegie, Ford, and William T. Grant Foundations all started demonstration programs.

There was just one small problem: there was no epidemic of teen pregnancy. There was an out-of-wedlock teen-pregnancy epidemic....

What jumps off the pages of her account is the simple inability, indeed refusal, of middle-class reformers to consider the reality of the situation developing in poor black communities.

In the middle-class mind, however, no sane girl would want to have a baby at 15—not that experts mouthing rhetoric about the oppressive patriarchal family would admit that there was anything wrong with that. That middle-class outlook, combined with post-Moynihan mendacity about the growing disconnect between ghetto childbearing and marriage, led the policy elites to frame what was really the broad cultural problem of separate and unequal families as a simple lack-of-reproductive-services problem. Ergo, girls “at risk” must need sex education and contraceptive services.

But the truth was that underclass girls often wanted to have babies; they didn’t see it as a problem that they were young and unmarried. They did not follow the middle-class life script that read: protracted adolescence, college, first job, marriage—and only then children. They did not share the belief that children needed mature, educated mothers who would make their youngsters’ development the center of their lives. Access to birth control couldn’t change any of that.

There is nothing new in this. I remember a conversation I had with sociologist Frank Furstenberg many years ago in which he made precisely this point. But reformers who were driving the liberal agenda since the 1960's didn't want to hear it. They closed their eyes, their ears, and their minds to the reality of life in Black communities.

And here is the most important point of the article.

The only good news was that the bad news was so unrelentingly bad that the usual bromides and evasions could no longer hold. Something had to shake up what amounted to an ideological paralysis, and that something came from conservatives. Three thinkers in particular—Charles Murray, Lawrence Mead, and Thomas Sowell—though they did not always write directly about the black family, effectively changed the conversation about it. First, they did not flinch from blunt language in describing the wreckage of the inner city, unafraid of the accusations of racism and victim blaming that came their way. Second, they pointed at the welfare policies of the 1960s, not racism or a lack of jobs or the legacy of slavery, as the cause of inner-city dysfunction, and in so doing they made the welfare mother the public symbol of the ghetto’s ills. (Murray in particular argued that welfare money provided a disincentive for marriage, and, while his theory may have overstated the role of economics, it’s worth noting that he was probably the first to grasp that the country was turning into a nation of separate and unequal families.) And third, they believed that the poor would have to change their behavior instead of waiting for Washington to end poverty, as liberals seemed to be saying.
You couldn't ask for a better example of why conservatives have displaced liberals at the forefront of political and intellectual discourse. Conservative ascendency has been built on the ruins of liberal projects that have failed time and again, and the ideological stasis that has kept liberals from responding creatively to the increasing discrepency between their nostrums and the world in which we all live.

The only major Democrat figure to recognize the damage liberals were doing to themselves was..., ta da, Bill Clinton.

In fact, by the early 1990s, when the ghetto was at its nadir, public opinion had clearly turned. No one was more attuned to this shift than triangulator Bill Clinton, who made the family a centerpiece of his domestic policy.
The importance of Clinton is not that he implemented significant programs or policies, but that his rejection of the past generation's liberal pieties made it possible for liberal Democrats to question those constraints on free discussion. What had been unthinkable has now become accepted wisdom.

Though they always caution that “marriage is not a panacea,” social scientists almost uniformly accept the research that confirms the benefits for children growing up with their own married parents. Welfare reform and tougher child-support regulations have reinforced the message of personal responsibility for one’s children.
She concludes, rightly I think, that liberal dogmatism set back meaningful reform in America's cities for a generation and more.

If change really is in the air, it’s taken 40 years to get here—40 years of inner-city misery for the country to reach a point at which it fully signed on to the lesson of Moynihan’s report. Yes, better late than never; but you could forgive lost generations of ghetto men, women, and children if they found it cold comfort.
Liberals may be slow to catch on to the realities of life. They prefer Satan's urging to "see things as they never were," but they're not uniformly stupid, and over time they can make accommodation to the reality based world. Unfortunately while they were locked into their ideological certainties, people were suffering and dying.

Read the whole thing here.


Responding to one of my correspondents: Yes, in many ways Pat Moynihan was a liberal, but he fell far outside the fold. He worked closely with Republicans from the sixties on and was quite willing to follow where his considerable intellect took him rather than hewing to the party line or to rigid ideological principles. How many program liberals, for instance, would be willing to sign onto the ideas expressed in his "Defining Deviance Down," article?

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