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From Moynihan to Post-Katrina New Orleans: Moral Economy, Culture, and Political Demobilization

It is of course a complete accident that the same year that marks the tenth anniversary of the failure of federally maintained levees, incompetent disaster relief, and rampant profiteering in the face of a relatively pedestrian hurricane known as Katrina should also mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication by an obscure Assistant Secretary of Labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan of The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. History is littered with such coincidences and in general, they are simply that, coincidences. Had a similar storm occurred instead in late August of 2006, hitting an increasingly privatized New Orleans run by the soon to be convicted felon Ray Nagin, in a nation governed by the unconvicted but decidedly more felonious George W. Bush, the results would have in all likelihood been all too similar and the accident of their anniversaries would not exist. Still, such coincidences can prove analytically fortuitous. The chance of history that brought the anniversaries of the Moynihan Report and Hurricane Katrina together helps elucidate both the long-term implications of Moynihan’s dominance over a large portion of American discourse regarding inequality—a discourse that bears a great deal of responsibility for the effects of that fairly mundane storm—and the long historical temporalities that produced Katrina as a storm of unthinkable tragedy. Indeed, Katrina did not form to the southeast of the Bahamas on August 22, 2005. It formed when Moynihan helped consolidate the culture of poverty thesis in 1965. It formed when a conception of freedom grounded in contract, work-discipline, and various versions of moral economy defeated its multiple historical alternatives. It formed when American politics ceased to effectively challenge these defeats. In fact, if we further widen our lens, we can see its beginnings in the monumental transition from slavery to freedom that is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Writing to General Oliver O. Howard, head of the Freedmen’s Bureau barely three months after Appomattox, Captain Charles Soule, the Chairmen of the Orangeburg, South Carolina Commission on Contracts laid bare his vision of the main threat to the postwar social order in the recently treasonous states.

In the opinion of a majority of the Commission, little danger to the welfare of society, or of the country, need be apprehended from the former slaveowners, who appear generally desirous to become good citizens.  It is the ignorance, the prejudice, the brutality, and the educated idleness,—if so it can be termed—of the freedmen,—all attributable, not so much to their race, as to the system of slavery under which they have lived,—that are mainly to be watched and placed under restraint.1

For Soule, like many, though by no means all white Northerners, the central contest of Reconstruction would not be about redistributing land, punishing insurrectionists, or guaranteeing the political rights of freedmen. It would be about instilling work-discipline in a new labor force, about replacing the compulsion of the whip with the “freedom” of the contract. As Soule saw it though, the danger in the supposed idleness of freedmen was not an inherent aspect of their race, but was the product of what a century or so later social scientists might have understood as the culture in which they were born, the culture of slavery that by its very nature supposedly disincentivized hard work and self-denial in favor of sloth and idleness.

Just six months later, the abolitionist and evangelist Henry Ward Beecher expressed his solution to this “idleness,” “ignorance,” and “brutality.”

Why should he, an ill-compensated and bewhipt drudge work willingly? Give him the prospect of a home, family that is not marketable, and he will work.2

As Amy Dru Stanley has so elegantly argued, in a large swath of the white northern worldview, here lay the central distinction between slavery and freedom, “the free market was thought by most northerners to safeguard the domestic ties destroyed by the market in slaves … to give material substance to the formal right of every man to be master of a family.”3

Thus, from more or less the moment of emancipation, work-discipline was understood as intimately connected to what almost exactly a century later Daniel Patrick Moynihan in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action would call “a society which presumes male leadership in public and private affairs.”4 Even as legal regimes of coverture were largely dying out over the course of the 20th century, this basic association remained a central tenet of the ideology of capitalist social relations. As Moynihan wrote on black teenage unemployment:

The unemployment statistics for Negro teenagers … reflect lack of training and opportunity in the greatest measure, but it may not be doubted that they also reflect a certain failure of nerve.

“Are you looking for a job?” Secretary of Labor Wirtz asked a young man on a Harlem street corner. “Why,” was the reply. (Moynihan, The Negro Family, 44.)

While “educated idleness” and “ignorance” may have been updated to a seemingly less pejorative “failure of nerve,” the basic point remained—these people just would not work because of a culture of dependency. For Soule, during the age of emancipation this meant the culture of dependency brought about by slavery—its essential disincentive to work. For Moynihan, the dependencies of slavery had been replaced by other cultures of dependency—dependency on women and dependency on the state. The basic problem—work discipline—remained the same.

Moynihan’s solution represented the opposite side of Beecher’s coin. For Beecher, the incentive to work would be household control and all the social, psychological, and monetary benefits that came with it. The family represented a form of moral economy, an economic and social bulwark against the vagaries of the market.5 Moynihan essentially agreed with Beecher on the nature of slavery’s evil. “It was by destroying the Negro family under slavery that white American broke the will of the Negro people,” he wrote (Moynihan, The Negro Family, 30). For Moynihan, this destruction, once the result of chattel slavery, was now caused by a growing black matriarchy. The usurpation of familial control on the part of black women destroyed the moral economy of the black family. That meant that restoring the traditional prerogatives of patriarchal social relations was the only way to end the pathological culture of dependency that produced the litany of evils that were supposedly endemic to the postwar black male poor and working class. Just as the key for Beecher was the granting of husbandly authority over wives and children in a manner that slavery had made legally and socially impossible, the key for Moynihan was reestablishing such authority in the face of a matriarchal culture that, for whatever reason, had wrested control from men and produced a “tangle of patholog(ies)” and dependencies. “A national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure” (Moynihan, The Negro Family, 47).

Forty years later, while water still covered much of New Orleans and many were still stranded without fresh water, food, shelter, or medical attention, Rich Lowry staked his claim to the most odious initial response to the city’s levee breaches of August 29 and 30, 2005. Writing in the National Review on September 2, Lowry admitted that poverty would likely be an excellent predictor of who was able to get out of New Orleans. Much more important than structurally sound levees, a halfway competent FEMA, a realistic evacuation plan for city residents, and a universal standard of living that would have allowed many residents the resources to evacuate, though, was the fact that from his excellent statistical vantage point, Lowry saw that the people trapped across the Gulf South, in the longue durée, must have arrived at the Superdome, their roof, or an I-10 overpass via “the breakdown of the family.”6 Suggesting a “grand right-left bargain that includes greater attention to out-of-wedlock births”—essentially a facsimile of Moynihan’s policy prescriptions—Lowry was cheered on by more mainstream successors of the pathologizing tradition such as Nicholas Kristoff and Jason DeParle.7

It was left to George Neumayr in the American Spectator to more explicitly connect fatherlessness and an even broader culture of pathology to dependency. Neumayr, who at least politely waited until the water had receded to print his own recycled ode to some unholy amalgam of Moynihan and William Graham Sumner, suggested (through dishonestly paraphrasing former City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell) that most every New Orleanian would have left had authorities made clear that they could pick up their welfare checks in Baton Rouge.8 For Neumayr, “the countless images of stranded women, children, and elderly were explained far more by the absence of fathers than by the tardiness of FEMA.” Of course such fatherly absence was reproduced by cultures of dependency and pathology that in his telling, bore no connection whatsoever to political economy (Neumayr, “The Desolate City,” 50).

That those like Lowry and Neumayr trotted out Moynihan’s ghost is perhaps the least surprising of a host of unsurprising Katrina commentaries in the months and years after the levee failures. That those like DeParle, Kristoff and others would echo their interpretations is nearly as unsurprising. What the essays that follow from Touré Reed, Megan French-Marcelin, John Arena, and Cedric Johnson make clear though is that the depths of connection between culture-of-poverty rhetoric, the Moynihan Report and the immediate, and just as important, the long-term response to Katrina is both greater and more nefarious than the accident of coincident anniversaries or the writings of conservative and middlebrow political pundits would initially indicate.

As Reed so cogently argues, Moynihan was at once less crass than many of his critics have suggested, yet even more problematic. As he writes, “what Moynihan meant by structural forces of inequality was racism and the cultural damage it inflicted upon African Americans.” It was not, as Reed goes on to demonstrate, inequality rooted in the place of African Americans in political economy and capitalist social relations. Whether consciously or not though, Moynihan’s popularity within a variety of intellectual and policy circles helped fortify the ascendant arguments of a diverse group of institutional structuralists who sought to counter demands for redistributive programs like a massive public works project for the growing legion of the unemployed—black and white—caught in global transformations in capitalist production with a variety of programs and policies that emphasized behavioral traits while propping up the legitimacy of middle- and upper-class tax cuts as economic solvents.

As Megan French-Marcelin makes clear in her contribution, the transformation of the New Orleans real estate market into a particularly lucrative locus of profit-making long preceded Katrina and its aftermath. While scholars have frequently compartmentalized the twin processes of postwar white and capital flight and black and urban poverty after they happened, urban planners, politicians, and administrators made no such distinction. The implications of this argument abound for our understanding of the urban history of the last half-century. Despite hand-wringing over contemporary gentrification in post-2005 New Orleans as well as cities across the nation, French-Marcelin is arguing that what we today call gentrification was forged in this urban crucible decades ago.   It was in this context that Moynihan’s ideas proved a key bridge. As she puts it,

planners thus operationalized culture of poverty theories toward new ends: inscribing pathologies onto residents that worked circuitously to blame residents for the decline of their physical environs and to present physical fixes as a solvent to issues of urban poverty.

Removing blight thus served the dual purpose of divorcing the poor from the environments that supposedly produced their poverty while opening up key swaths of urban land for redevelopment with which to attract middle- and upper-income people back to the city. The blight index adopted by planners made the underlying logic of this shell game abundantly clear. Along with factors such as substandard housing were conditions of “human blight” such as female-headed households and out-of-wedlock births. The net result was that long before the flood waters rose and conservative commentators like Neumayr inveighed against the pathologies of New Orleans and New Orleanians, culture-of-poverty discourse had served as the key legitimation that turned rent intensification and real estate speculation into solutions posited by a racially liberal city government to the crises of urban poverty.

For Arena, Moynihan’s legacy is carried forward to 2005 through the devastatingly important work of legitimation done by William Julius Wilson. Moving from Chicago Sociology’s “human ecology” model of progressive assimilation, Arena shows how Moynihan, following in particular on the heals of E. Franklin Frazier, imbibed the basic Chicago model in order to attempt to explain the seemingly deviating experience of African Americans in northern cities from that of recent immigrant groups. Wilson carried forward the essential tenets of Moynihan’s diagnosis—pathology, disorganization, unmarriagability, lack of role models—while dressing them up in a slightly more complicated understanding of structural shifts in political economy. The key point still stood though—concentrated poverty is a social evil not because of poverty and inequality per se or the structural shifts that produce them, but because of its geographical concentration. His work thus served as a bridge of legitimation that updated Moynihan’s ideas in the context of Clinton-era welfare reform and the assault on public housing with the formalization of HOPE VI. In the days and months following the levee breaches, Wilson’s ideas and Wilson himself were trotted out again as deconcentrating poverty became the rhetorical justification for the liberal-led charge of closing public housing, redeveloping land with an eye toward profit-making, and remaking New Orleans as a smaller city, “a city with a much greater mix of incomes.”

While Reed, French-Marcelin, and Arena take us mostly up through late August of 2005, Cedric Johnson brings us closer to the present by demonstrating how underclass ideology has been especially prevalent in the profit-oriented rebuilding of New Orleans. As Johnson makes clear, from the very beginning Katrina inspired a hope of remaking the city in a decidedly more market-oriented manner. As he puts it,

The Katrina crisis revived liberal anti-racist and underclass arguments in ways that either misunderstood or willfully obscured the actual class interests at play and political alignments on the ground in the city, and consequentially, such arguments had the effect of empowering those voices within the black population most closely aligned with the interests of the downtown recovery-growth coalition while silencing those of the displaced, public housing residents, city workers, and the working class more generally.

This revival was far from limited to neoconservatives or self-interested real estate developers. In one of the most telling examples of the liberal anti-racist consensus in the post-Katrina moment, anti-racist icon David Simon trotted out formerly imprisoned city-councilman Oliver Thomas as a people’s hero in his high-production-value tourism-brochure-cum-HBO series Treme—despite Thomas’ command that “soap opera watchers” in public housing should stay clear of post-2005 New Orleans.

Johnson invokes Marx’s notion of the reserve army of labor usefully to describe the dual rebuilding processes which at once remove “concentrated poverty” while simultaneously guaranteeing a large pool of low-waged labor, especially useful in many of New Orleans’ most prevalent industries, which, because there is neither a labor movement or real state regulation to hinder them, are able to expand and contract seasonally with no political pushback. The destruction of the United Teachers of New Orleans; the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act; a rebuilding effort utterly reliant on what Vincanne Adams has labeled the affective economy of voluntarism; the destruction of public and affordable housing and the concomitant rent intensification associated with elite centered development—Johnson shows how through such actions post-2005 New Orleans has led the trend toward placing more rights and social goods within the moral bounds of the marketplace while simultaneously devaluing the labor of huge numbers of New Orleanians.9

Collectively, these four accounts make abundantly clear that Moynihan-style culture-of-poverty rhetoric has been about a great deal more than “blaming the victim,” as civil rights activist William Ryan put it after the report’s release. It is worth returning though to Soule, Beecher, and the era of emancipation. The moments of 1865, 1965, and 2005 contained certain underlying similarities in their literal and figurative evangelical zeal for capitalist work-discipline and free contract. If it seems that Beecher’s invocation of the essential difference between slavery and freedom being a promise of a home life outside the corruptions of the market has fallen out of social discourse, perhaps we are not looking closely enough at the basic contours of Beecher’s argument and our current moment. In Beecher’s telling, the family represented something approximating E.P. Thompson’s notion of moral economy (combined of course with the patriarchal understanding and the legal actuality of men’s ownership of women’s labor and property)—it was at once economic bulwark of the poor and working class, incentive to capitalist work-discipline, and a basic right that could not be infringed upon by the profit motive. For Moynihan of course, the family retained similar functions only in the negative—it was moral bulwark against idleness, pathology, and dependency—the supposed “culture” produced in African Americans through the experience of slavery. Freedom in post-Katrina New Orleans, is imagined as much, if not more than ever, in terms of contract (in hiring, in real estate development), choice (in schools, in neighborhoods, in teachers, in leisure activities, in organic foodstuffs), and the inexistence of dependency (on arms of the state ranging from public housing to FEMA and on unions as “rent-seekers” and perverters of markets). The family, as both spoil and bulwark, may have lost some of its ideological power in recent years, but New Orleans after Katrina has seen a similar form of moral economy take its place: odes to authentic and constantly threatened culture and community.

Yet, in 1865, a sizable force of freed women and men, along with white supporters in the North and South, fought and fought hard against this vision of freedom. They did not fight for a vision of moral economy, they fought for land redistribution, political rights, and against the liberal idea that labor was a commodity like any other. Similarly, in 1965 there existed a large number of people, in Civil Rights institutions, the labor movement, and emergent feminist organizations that saw in Moynihan’s ideology a deep threat to the considerable achievements of the New Deal order, the Civil Rights Movement, and the growing growing political and cultural infrastructure of gender and sexual equality. They pushed hard for public works, for the revaluation of various kinds of labor, and the inscription of basic rights to housing, welfare, health care, etc. In post-Katrina New Orleans, people have largely fought to save amorphous notions of community, to preserve their culture, to keep their city “authentic,” to have ever more consumer choice, and to maintain ownership of their 21st-century moral economy. The threats to equality are not the triumph of unfettered contract, political disenfranchisement, the devaluation of labor, the destruction of the welfare state or changes in structural political economy. It is in this transition, from the subject of politics being the achievement and exercising of structural and institutional power to a vision of meaningful engagement as centered around vague and indeterminate notions of culture, community, and authenticity that the legacy of those like Beecher, Soule, Moynihan, and Wilson takes its most tragic form.


1. Charles Soule to Oliver O. Howard, June 12, 1965, in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, series 3, volume 1, Land and Labor, 1865, eds. Steven Hahn et al. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 221-22.
2. Henry Ward Beecher, quoted in Amy Dru Stanley, “Home Life and the Morality of the Market: Slavery and Freedom, Women and Men,” in The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political, and Religious Expressions, 1800-1880, eds. Melvyn Stokes and Stephen Conway (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 74.
3. Stanley, “Home Life and the Morality of the Market,” 90. For a more detailed explication of this argument, see Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
4. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington DC: Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research, 1965), 29.
5. For the classic elucidation of moral economy, see Edward P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past and Present 50 (February 1971): 76-136.
6. Rich Lowry, “The Coming Battle Over New Orleans,” National Review (online feature, September 2, 2005), n.p. (
7. Lowry, “The Coming Battle Over New Orleans.” See Angela Bonavoglia, “Hurricane Pundits Blow Hot Air on Single Mothers,” WeNews (online feature, September 14, 2005), n.p. (
8. George Neumayr, “The Nation’s Pulse: The Desolate City,” American Spectator 38.9 (November 2005), 49. Hedge-Morrell had suggested that as Katrina hit at the end of the month, many of the poorest in the region had little extra cash because their family budgets were dependent on a variety of forms of assistance that came on the first day of the month. As such, the prospect of an expensive evacuation (even if one boards a city run bus to a federally run shelter, those in hurricane-prone areas know that evacuations still end up costing money) may have led some to hunker down.
9. See Vincanne Adams, Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), esp. 9-12.