The Imaginary 'Moynihan Report'

Yes, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a famous report on the state of the black family, but it doesn’t say what conservatives want it to say.

A few folks have come to the defense of Paul Ryan and his remarks on poverty. Here, at The Daily Beast, Ron Christie cites the oft-mentioned Moynihan Report to argue that Ryan was right in his diagnosis of the problem:

The future New York Senator’s prescient advice nearly 50 years ago remains true today: “In a word, a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure. The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business.”

Likewise, at the Daily Caller, Matt Lewis attacks liberals as hypocritical and doctrinaire, also citing Moynihan to make his point:

Of course, Ryan was essentially just continuing a conversation liberal Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan had begun 50 years ago, when he had the courage to warn that the welfare state might be breaking up the family unit, harming black families, and increasing urban poverty.

For daring to speak the truth and help solve the problem, even Moynihan was accused of being “something of a racist.”

Even if you accept the iffy proposition that Rep. Barbara Lee—who accused Ryan of racism—represents “the Left,” you’re left with a big problem. The Moynihan Report doesn’t say what Lewis and Christie think it does.

Christie quotes Moynihan on the urgency of strengthening the black family and Lewis asserts that Moynihan had the “courage” to warn that “the welfare state might be breaking up the family unit.” The problem with Christie’s take is that it’s completely isolated from the bulk of the report, and the problem with Lewis’ is that it’s made up—a conclusion from the imaginary report that conservatives wish Moynihan had written, not the actual report that exists.

Yes, it’s absolutely true that Moynihan wanted to strengthen the black family. Indeed, he saw this as a core duty of the federal government, a stance at odds with both Christie and Lewis:

The policy of the United States is to bring the Negro American to full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship. To this end, the programs of the Federal government bearing on this objective shall be designed to have the effect, directly or indirectly, of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family.

At the same time, Moynihan was absolutely clear-eyed about the reasons for the weakness of the black family, as well as the particular challenges of low-income inner-city African Americans. Pace Lewis, he didn’t blame “the welfare state,” he blamed racism:

The Negro situation is commonly perceived by whites in terms of the visible manifestation of discrimination and poverty, in part because Negro protest is directed against such obstacles, and in part, no doubt, because these are facts which involve the actions and attitudes of the white community as well. It is more difficult, however, for whites to perceive the effect that three centuries of exploitation have had on the fabric of Negro society itself. Here the consequences of the historic injustices done to Negro Americans are silent and hidden from view.

He continues:

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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.

A statement like this—“The steady expansion of this welfare program, as of public assistance programs in general, can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States”—has to be taken in the context of his description of the situation. Welfare dependency, in Moynihan’s view, wasn’t a given—the inevitable result of giving unearned aid to able people. Welfare dependency, he argued, was a direct consequence of family disintegration, which—in turn—was a direct consequence of America’s brutal treatment of African Americans.

Now, yes, in the 50 years since its publication, the report has been demolished and debunked by a whole constellation of scholars, and yes, if you want to learn about urban poverty among African Americans, there are much better resources. But the point here is to give a more accurate view of a report that’s been used for decades as a clobber text against liberals for ignoring so-called “black pathology.”

It’s here that Christie and Lewis are emblematic. Like most conservatives who cite the Moynihan Report, they refuse to grapple with the future senator’s indictment of American racism, and instead, focus on “culture” and “pathology.” And it’s not hard to see why: It flatters conservative ideology to think that even the liberal Moynihan thought inner-city blacks were to blame for their situation. But he didn’t. Moynihan understood that these challenges grew out of racism, and were reinforced and replicated by our national refusal to act. For that reason, he supported broad national action to intervene in these communities and directly address the problem of family structure—a far cry from Paul Ryan’s small government approach.

The ghetto is public policy, period, and I’m not sure conservatism is equipped to handle this. It’s not that conservatives can’t help—Right on Crime does a lot of good work on criminal justice, and I hope Republicans writ large adopt their skepticism toward mass incarceration—but that it’s hard to reverse the consequences of action with limited government. If racism is force, then you can’t solve the problem with its absence—you need countervailing force. Liberals have this in the form of color-conscious state action. But conservatives are (admirably) committed to libertarian principles that emphasize colorblindness, and this makes it hard to discuss racial inequality. Hence, the focus on “culture.”

Indeed, a conservatism that understood and incorporated systemic inequality is one that might have to rethink its categorical commitment to limited government. And few people, myself included, look forward to interrogating their beliefs that deeply.