The Moynihan Report

Washington

After six months of private circulation among government officials and a steadily widening circle of increasingly loose-mouthed journalists, the controversial “Moynihan Report” on the Negro family has been released to the public. Actually, the name of Daniel Patrick Moynihan appears nowhere on the 78-page pamphlet. But the authorship of the former Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy Planning (who recently ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination as President of the New York City Council and is now rumor’s favorite candidate for almost every important unfilled job in Washington) is no secret. Nor is it any secret that this document, while not an official statement of federal policy, has influenced recent thinking at every level of government. It lay behind the President’s call for a White House Conference in November on the problems of Negroes in general and Negro families in particular.

Moynihan’s thesis can be summarized as follows: 1. American slavery was the worst version of slavery in human history. 2. The legacy of Negro slavery in America was twofold: segregation and discrimination against Negroes by whites, and establishment of an American Negro culture which disqualifies many of its participants for life in modern America even when the terms of competition are fair and opportunities open. 3. The central defect of American Negro life is the “matrifocal” family, in which the male is a transient who provides neither a regular income, consistent discipline and direction, nor an example to his sons of what they might hope to become as adults. 4. The psychological, social, and economic problems generated by matriarchy are getting worse, not better. Despite all the recent civil rights and poverty legislation, the chasm separating lower-class Negroes from the mainstream of American life is growing wider and deeper. Only a minority is acquiring the more patriarchal, middle-class family style, and only a minority shows signs of participating in the middle class’s increasing affluence. 5. The establishment of a “stable” (i.e., more or less “patrifocal”) Negro family structure should therefore be made a national goal, and national policy in many different fields should be adjusted to promote this goal.

Moynihan’s analysis is in the conservative tradition that guided the drafting of the poverty program (in whose formulation he participated during the winter of 1963-4). The guiding assumption is that social pathology is caused less by basic defects in the social system than by defects in particular individuals and groups which prevent their adjusting to the system. The prescription is therefore to change the deviants, not the system.

Two years ago the children of the poor were to be helped to escape from the “culture of poverty” by more intensive schooling, induction into the Job Corps, provision of more guidance and counselling, and so forth. Now the lower-class Negro family is to be made more like the middle-class white family—though by means which Moynihan does not specify.

Needless to say, this approach has met with enthusiastic support from those middle-class Americans who …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.