Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Why Moynihan Was Not So Misunderstood at the Time: The Mythological Prescience of the Moynihan Report and the Problem of Institutional Structuralism

The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (the title of the Moynihan Report) is perhaps the most controversial and influential non-peer reviewed study published in the last fifty years. Its author, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was an ambitious, gregarious, liberal academic who was impressed with the civil rights movement and the legislation it helped spawn—notably the Civil Rights and Economic Opportunities Acts of 1964. According to historian James T. Patterson, Moynihan wanted “to start a serious conversation among policymakers and to devise far reaching socioeconomic reforms.” He thus aimed his study—which was printed as an in-house document—at top administration officials, with the hope that it would help them understand the devastation poverty and unemployment wrought on black families.1 The Negro Family (authored in March 1965) ultimately caught the attention of President Lyndon Johnson, who was so impressed with what he had heard about Moynihan’s study that he enlisted the Assistant Secretary of Labor to draft Johnson’s Howard University address (June 1965). Not long after the President’s Howard University address, news of the so-called Moynihan Report was leaked to the press. Historian James T. Patterson contends that early accounts of the Moynihan Report—in particular Newsweek’s coverage—misrepresented the content and intent of the study. Worse yet, The Negro Family was formally released shortly after the August 1965 Watts Riot, which ensured that the document, focused as it was on the disintegration of black communal life, would be heavily scrutinized.2

The critical response to the Moynihan Report is nearly as infamous as the document was when it was first published 50 years ago. Critics were especially alarmed by Moynihan’s allegations of rampant social pathology among poor blacks as well as his ambivalence about whether the dysfunction he reported was the product of structural inequities or the cultural deficiencies of the African American poor themselves. Critics such as Carol Stack took exception to Moynihan’s equation of female-headed households with social disorganization, arguing that such arrangements were less pathological than adaptive.3 Still other critics, among them Laura Carper and Herbert Gans, called into question Moynihan’s interpretation of the data, particularly his contention that rising nonwhite AFDC caseloads revealed welfare dependency.4 And, of course, psychologist and civil rights activist William Ryan famously accused Moynihan of “blaming the victim.”

Since the 1980s, Moynihan’s defenders have generally characterized him as courageous, misunderstood, and prescient. In his influential The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), for example, sociologist William Julius Wilson described the Moynihan Report “as the only study” of its era that offered even an “abstract sense” of the long-term cumulative effects of racial inequality—“the economic and social situations into which so many disadvantaged blacks are born”—on African American family structure and culture.5 Wilson and a long list of scholars including James T. Patterson have, moreover, argued that rising rates of violent crime, female-headed households, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and welfare dependency among blacks in the decades since the publication of The Negro Family have vindicated Moynihan.6 Finally, apologists have defended Moynihan against the charge of victim blaming by arguing that the Moynihan Report rooted black social pathology in “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” and long term unemployment. So while the Moynihan Report offered no concrete solutions, Moynihan believed that the problem of the Negro family would likely be resolved by a combination of jobs programs, full employment policy, and AFDC reform.

Even a cursory read of the Moynihan Report makes clear that Moynihan is not guilty of crass victim blaming. Indeed, as William Julius Wilson eloquently stated, Moynihan’s “presentation certainly lacked elegance, but it was an attempt to synthesize structural and cultural analyses to understand the dynamics of poor black families and the plight of low-skilled black males.”7 But while Wilson proffered that statement as a defense of Moynihan, his formulation functions equally well as a critique of the Moynihan Report. Specifically, Moynihan’s efforts to synthesize a cultural and structural analysis of poverty revealed a conception of structure rooted not in political economy but in ethnic pluralism. Simply put, what Moynihan meant by structural sources of inequality was racism (which established barriers to black social and economic progress) and the damage it inflicted on the institutions that regulated cultural norms among African Americans. To be sure, Moynihan’s conception of “structural inequality” offers some insulation against the facile charge of “victim blaming”; nevertheless, Wilson’s formulation ultimately highlights a more significant problem with the Moynihan Report. Moynihan was not particularly concerned about the impact of structural changes in the nation’s economy on black unemployment and poverty. As I will discuss below, the Moynihan Report’s indifference to the consequences of automation and mechanization on black life—issues stressed not just by activists such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, but Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz—was consistent with the perspectives of Democratic policymakers who opposed a more robust War on Poverty. Indeed, the Moynihan Report’s emphasis on racism and black culture complemented the conservative antipoverty agenda of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), which—believing African American poverty to be exceptional—identified tax cuts, anti-discrimination legislation, and targeted programs, rather than redistributive policies, as the appropriate remedy for black poverty.

In order to appreciate the problems with the Moynihan Report, it is necessary to discuss the document in some detail and then place it in historical context. Moynihan begins The Negro Family: The Case for National Action with a reflection on the implications of the recent victories of the modern civil rights movement. The passage of the Manpower and Development Training Act (1962), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Economic Opportunity Act (1964) had fulfilled “the demand of Negro Americans for full recognition of their civil rights.” Now black Americans would desire “equal results, as compared with other groups.” According to Moynihan, however, two forces undermined blacks’ goals. The first was “the racist virus in the American bloodstream that still afflicts all of us.” The second was the toll of “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.” The toll to which Moynihan referred was, of course, the emasculation of black men and the related disorganization of the black family. While a middle class had managed to save itself, “for the vast numbers of the unskilled, poorly educated city working class the fabric of conventional social relationships was all but disintegrated…. So long as this situation persists,” Moynihan asserted, “the cycle of poverty and disadvantage will continue to repeat itself.”8

For Moynihan, the urban black poor were deserving of government assistance; the “tangle of pathology” that cocooned them had not yet produced the “speciation” with which he would later express concern.9 Nevertheless, the black family was in the midst of a serious crisis: “Nearly a quarter of urban negro marriages are dissolved”; Nearly one-quarter of negro births are now illegitimate”; “Almost one-fourth of negro families are headed by females.” Moynihan believed that these forces culminated in “a startling increase in welfare dependency.” As mentioned above, Moynihan was careful to attribute the crisis of the black family to structural forces in the form of institutional racism. He traced the origin of the matriarchal black family to slavery, which not only stripped blacks of their cultural heritage but it emasculated African American men, depriving them of their natural role as protector and provider for their women and progeny. Emancipation conferred titular liberty, however, black men of the Jim Crow era were forced to demur in the face of public humiliation and discrimination, knowing all too well, according to Moynihan, that “the ‘sassy nigger’ was lynched.” Urbanization and discriminatory job markets would further undermine black men, and by extension, African American family formation. Citing black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, Moynihan suggested that migration and the destructive influences found in slums, chipped away at the communal institutions that regulated social norms. Worse yet, Moynihan found that in nearly a quarter of black two-parent households, women were the principal wage earners.10

One implication of Moynihan’s findings was a jobs program. In fact, Moynihan’s analysis revealed that the number of desertions increased within 12 months of upticks in unemployment. But the Moynihan Report devotes little attention to jobs; instead, Moynihan stressed that the federal response should center on efforts shoring up the black family and African American wage earners. Though the absence of specific recommendations is, as Patterson notes, likely illustrative of the fact that the Moynihan Report was intended as an internal document, Moynihan was actually ambivalent about the efficacy of jobs alone to solve the crisis besetting African Americans. For example, Moynihan suggested that a seemingly incongruous coincidence of a rise in non-white AFDC caseloads with a decline in non-white unemployment (1962-1964) might have evinced a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and dependency.11 Moynihan’s conclusion ultimately expressed confidence that the crisis of the black family had yet to reach the point of no return12; however, when he revisited this issue in “Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family,” published shortly after the formal release of the Moynihan Report, Moynihan seemed less certain about poor blacks’ prospects for escaping the “tangle of pathology.”

Appearing in a special edition in Daedalus, “Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family” eschewed speculation about the pernicious influence of slavery on black culture and instead focused narrowly on the relationship between unemployment and family dissolution since 1930. The study thus examined issues such as blacks’ shrinking footprint in agriculture; blacks’ overrepresentation among blue collar “operatives”; African Americans’ increasing share of professional and clerical work; the dearth of black entrepreneurs and business managers; the income divide between blacks and whites; and blacks’ “excessive dependence on the income of women.”13 Some have suggested that the Daedalus article’s focus leaves little doubt that Moynihan traced the crisis of the black family to joblessness. Moynihan does, indeed, observe a correlation between unemployment and family dissolution, leading him to declare “the cumulative result of unemployment and low income… has produced an unmistakable crisis in the Negro family.” Still, Moynihan is explicitly ambivalent as to whether full employment policies—which he concedes would be the obvious implication of the data and describes as “an essential first step”—were capable of redressing the problem of social disorganization afflicting black families and communities. “An association between rising economic and social distress in the world of the Negro American,” he says, “can be seen readily enough in the data, but proof of a causal relationship is a more complex matter.”14 Reflecting again on the inverse relationship between black unemployment and non-white AFDC cases 1962-1964, Moynihan once more suggests that the crisis in the black family may have already taken on a life of its own, divorced from jobs and unemployment. “It would be troubling indeed to learn,” he said, “that until several years ago employment opportunity made a great deal of difference in the rate of Negro dependency and family disorganization, but that situation has so deteriorated that the problem is now feeding on itself—that measures which once would have worked will henceforth not work so well, or work at all.”15

It is worth noting that there is an irony to Moynihan’s reluctance to draw a causal relationship between black unemployment and family dissolution by the early 1960s. Though Moynihan took the inverse relationship between nonwhite AFDC caseloads and unemployment as evidence of the onset of a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty, Laura Carper observed in 1966 that the reported rise in AFDC caseloads with which Moynihan was concerned was the result of the liberalization of AFDC eligibility rules beginning in 1962.16

Moynihan’s emphasis on the cultural distinctiveness of poor blacks was part and parcel of the study of poverty in the 1950s and 1960s. In the years preceding the War on Poverty, structuralists—policymakers, academics, and activists alike—generally presumed that the poor possessed distinct attributes. As historian Alice O’Connor has argued, structuralists proceeded from two related observations about poverty. First, affluence rooted in economic expansion had transformed poverty from a mass phenomenon to a problem afflicting a minority of Americans. Second, poverty was largely confined to groups that were “structurally disadvantaged” by issues such as “age, geography, racial discrimination, and family income.” According to structuralists then, the very distinctiveness of the poor constituted one of the factors that placed them beyond the reach of the expanding economy. Still, even as many structuralists believed that poor people were qualitatively different from the middle and upper classes—which necessarily meant that unemployment and lack of income were not solely to blame for poverty—they argued that any serious antipoverty initiative had to address joblessness and/or other structural sources of economic and social inequality.17

Two structuralist camps emerged between the 1950s and 1960s: economic structuralists and institutional structuralists. Again, both camps generally presumed that poverty in the age of the affluent society was largely confined to out-groups—the aged, mentally or morally deficient individuals, single-mothers, and groups who were marginalized by geographic isolation or racial discrimination. More often than not, what distinguished the two schools then was not so much their perceptions of the poor, but the remedies they proposed. Economic structrualists—such as John Kenneth Galbraith, Gunnar Myrdal, and Michael Harrington—viewed poverty through the lens of political economy and thus identified redistributive programs, including work relief and job training, as the most effective weapons to combat poverty.18 Institutional structuralists, like economist Oscar Ornati by contrast, proposed policies intended to redress the character deficiencies of the poor through provision of services he deemed as “structurally oriented”—education, training, improvements in mental health services, etc.19

The contrasting perspectives of economic and institutional structuralists played out in policy debates related to black poverty in the early 1960s. A. Philip Randolph’s and Bayard Rustin’s demands for full employment and public works via the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom presumed that high rates of African American unemployment and poverty were the product not just of racism but automation and mechanization. Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz likewise called for public works as an essential element of any serious plan to reduce black unemployment, arguing that proportionalism in Manpower Development Training Act (MDTA) and Area Redevelopment Act (ARA) training programs could not make a meaningful dent in black unemployment. And both Senator Joseph P. Clark’s (D-PA) public hearings on fair employment practices law and Senator Hubert Humphrey’s (D-MN) S-1937 (an alternative to Title VII) proceeded from much the same economic structuralist perspectives.20

By contrast, Walter Heller and the Council of Economic Advisers rejected the notion that redistributive policies—such as public works—were necessary to redress unemployment and poverty. Presuming that unemployment reflected economic cycles rather than shifts, the CEA believed that a multi-billion dollar tax cut would reduce unemployment in the aggregate and engender “full employment,” which was then defined as 3-4 percent unemployment.21 Heller et al likewise argued that tax cuts would contribute to a reduction in black unemployment, claiming that wartime stimulus had played a vital role in the economic gains African Americans had made 1940-1953—a period in which black workers had actually begun to close the income and employment gap. To be sure, CEA staffers like Robert Lampman understood that the most marginalized populations—a group that would be referred to as the “hardcore unemployed”—would be largely untouched by tax-cuts.22 Lampman thus turned to institutional structuralism to bridge the divide. In the weeks preceding the 1963 March on Washington, Lampman argued that antipoverty measures should center on “aggressive expansionist full employment fiscal policy” combined with “anti-discrimination efforts… better school and public facilities for low income children.” Lampman likewise called for retraining and relocation allowances and “improv[ing] environments of the poor by community development and public housing.”23 More to the point, his recommendations explicitly rejected redistributive programs altogether, casting them as not only unnecessary but counterproductive. Asserting that the poor should earn the American living standard “by their own efforts and contributions,” the Council claimed that “it will be far better, even if more difficult, to equip and to permit the poor of the nation to produce and to earn the additional $11billion and more.”24

The CEA incorporated institutional structuralism into its analysis of poverty largely to protect the tax cuts—which would benefit middle and upper income Americans—from attacks from the left. Nevertheless, the CEA’s adoption of institutional structuralism buttressed the appeal, as historian Carl Brauer has argued, of Community Action and other War on Poverty initiatives like Job Corps that emphasized behavioral or motivational modification rather than jobs.

Whatever Moynihan set out to do in The Negro Family and subsequent essays and books, his analysis of black poverty proceeded from assumptions driving institutional rather than economic structuralism. And like Heller and the CEA, Moynihan’s embrace of institutional structuralism was wed to acceptance of the logic of commercial Keynesianism. In fact, Moynihan gave a nod to Heller and the CEA’s stewardship of the economy in “The Professionalization of Reform” (1965). Moynihan conceded that “something called automation” was underway; however, he rejected the claim that automation was transforming American society, describing it as “simply the newest phase in a process that has been under way for at least two centuries….” Moynihan believed that concerns about automation were overblown partly because, as he put it, economists had been “learning how to make an industrial economy work” since World War II.25 Describing modern economics (of the mid-1960s) as “approaching the status of an applied science” Moynihan praised the Council of Economic Advisers for successfully forecasting GNP and unemployment in 1964 and, of course, the related efficacy of tax and spend policy to stimulate growth and curb unemployment.26

Moynihan’s characterization of the poor themselves was, as mentioned above, in step with contemporaneous poverty discourse. Still, his indifference to the political-economic implications of poverty, and his acceptance of the logic of commercial Keynesianism placed him inline with the CEA and the faction of policymakers who ensured that the War on Poverty would mitigate but not eliminate poverty.27 Moynihan’s observations about the black family are thus prescient only if one attributes the failures of the War on Poverty to black social pathology, sidestepping the implications of the Johnson Administration’s embrace of commercial Keynesianism. Indeed, the visionary status Moynihan has attained over the fifty years following the publication of The Negro Family is illustrative of the triumph of market ideology and antistatism, as it all but ignores the fact that left-liberal economic structuralists like Charles Killingsworth, Michael Harrington, and Bayard Rustin anticipated the failure of the War on Poverty, arguing, in contrast to the CEA and Moynihan, that contemporary poverty was the product of automation, mechanization, and deindustrialization rather than a decline in aggregate demand or a surge in social disorganization. It is worthwhile to consider what antipoverty measures would have looked like if economic structuralists had won the battle for the War on Poverty.

University of Wisconsin trained economist Charles Killingsworth, for example, was among the most trenchant left-liberal critics of the CEA directed War on Poverty. Killingsworth—who had served as panel chairman of the National War Labor Board during World War II and chairman of the Federal Wage Stabilization Board—argued that the CEA’s faith in tax cuts and antidiscrimination legislation to redress poverty proceeded from faulty if not atavistic presumptions about labor markets and a related hubris about democratic potential of growth politics. While commercial Keynesians attributed African Americans’ employment gains 1940-1953 to tight labor markets engendered by wartime stimulus, Killingsworth argued that blacks’ gains in this period owed more to economic intervention. Not only had conscription created an unusually tight labor market, but “demand for war goods” had, according to Killingsworth, compelled employers to transform “custom fabrication operations” into mass production facilities that subdivided “many formerly skilled jobs into simple components that could readily be taught to inexperienced, low-skilled workers….” More to the point, the federal government absorbed production costs—subsidizing recruitment and training of workers as well as machinery and plant. Unemployment plummeted during World War II (falling to an all-time low of 1.2 percent), Killingsworth claimed, thanks to a combination of wartime stimulus, decline in available supply of labor, and government sponsored restructuring of the economy. The employment and income gains blacks had made 1940-1953 were thus not simply attributed to the expansion of the manufacturing sector, but these gains resulted from a demand for low-skilled labor that was fostered by economic intervention.28

While Killingsworth acknowledged that discrimination and slack labor markets contributed to the high rates of black poverty in the mid-1960s, he observed that income and employment disparities had actually widened 1954-65—a period that witnessed the enactment of significant civil right legislation.29 For Killingsworth this made clear that black-white economic disparities owed less to discrimination and depressed demand than to several economic developments that hit African Americans particularly hard. First, since the mid-1950s automation had eliminated many well-paying, low-skilled manufacturing jobs. Second, defense production had shifted from low-tech (“aircraft, ships, and wheeled vehicles”) to high-tech procurements (“missiles, atomic weapons, electronic equipment, and other sophisticated gear”), resulting in increased demand for highly skilled workers, such as engineers and technicians, at the expense of “the low-skilled assembly-line worker.” Third, the process of postwar decentralization of production meant that manufacturers had not only begun to relocate factories from the Rustbelt to the Sunbelt, but businesses were increasingly choosing to build new stores and plants in suburbs rather than central cities. And finally, postwar prosperity fostered a growing demand for service sector work, which, in contrast to manufacturing, was “generally performed where customers are….”30 Killingsworth ultimately argued that the elimination of well-paying, low-skilled manufacturing jobs via automation and deindustrialization placed most blacks—who were not only overrepresented among unskilled workers but were concentrated in central cities—beyond the reach of growth politics.

For Killingsworth, then, the remedies to black unemployment were clear: anti-discrimination measures, more modest tax cuts, and comprehensive jobs programs that included both training and public works. While Killingsworth believed that stimulus in the form of tax cuts was necessary (he called for a tax cut that was half that proposed by the CEA), he criticized the CEA, Milton Friedman, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan31 for their faith in market-based solutions to poverty which could not, as he saw it, meet the needs of the so-called hard-core unemployed. Having “never seen a peacetime example of a job being redesigned for the specific purpose” of utilizing “available unskilled labor,” Killingsworth insisted that a successful assault on black poverty required economic planning.32 Thus proceeding from the view that programs targeting structural unemployment were essential, Killingsworth gave high marks to job training programs such as MDTA, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Job Corps’s remedial initiatives, Work Study, and “New Careers” as well as the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which “put tens of thousands to work” as “program aides.” Still, Killingsworth believed these programs were inadequate on their own terms, as they were grossly underfunded in relation to their charge. Likewise, the absence of public works programs, in his view, ensured that low-skilled blacks in central cities would remain beyond the reach of economic stimulus.33

Believing that “the history of the Negroes in America—especially the history of the 1940-53 period—demonstrates that they are as ready as any group in the population to grasp opportunity when it is within their reach,” Killingsworth was little concerned with the cultural implications of poverty.34 Many other economic structuralists, however, were invested in such matters. In ”From Protest to Politics” (1965), for example, Bayard Rustin asserted “the Negro family structure was totally destroyed by slavery and with it the possibility of cultural transmission (the right of Negroes to marry and rear children is barely a century old.)”35 In “The Politics of Poverty” (1965), white socialist Michael Harrington described black poverty as “the most terrible example of how contemporary poverty affects group psychology….” According to Harrington, slavery stripped blacks “of their African heritage,” abolishing “religion, the family, the tribe, or the community”; and while emancipation provided titular freedom, Jim Crow era economic exploitation not only threatened the “the very spirit of the Negro,” but it emasculated “the Negro male,” resulting in “a matriarchal tendency in Negro life.”36

If Rustin and Harrington appeared to share Moynihan’s sensibilities about the damage slavery and Jim Crow inflicted upon black institutional life, they were far from ambivalent about either the origins of contemporary poverty or its remedies. Indeed, Rustin and Harrington devoted only passing reference to the deleterious effects of poverty on group culture—Rustin dedicated just one sentence to the matter. Instead Rustin and Harrington, like Killingsworth, each attributed high rates of black poverty to automation, mechanization, and the transformation of the nation’s economy from manufacturing to service sector work, leading both to call for massive expansion of the public sector employment.37 Harrington called for a Third New Deal, centered on what he referred to as a “social investment” approach. Referencing the 1964 Clark Subcommittee report—which laid out a plan to reduce unemployment below 3 percent by 1968 via “annual increments of $5billion in social spending”—as a partial blueprint, Harrington argued that the GNP should be shaped not by the market but by the nation’s social aims. As he succinctly stated, since the “private goods-producing sector will not create jobs for the poor… there must be a conscious generation of work in the public sector.”38 If “From Protest to Politics” provided only a glimpse of Rustin’s policy prescriptions,39 The Freedom Budget (1966) laid out a clear vision for combating poverty. The brainchild of Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and economist and former CEA Chairman Leon Keyserling—Keyserling had served on President Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers (1946-1953)—the 84page Freedom Budget offered a detailed vision for eliminating poverty centered on redistributive programs funded by $180billion in federal expenditures over ten years. The Freedom Budget called for full employment, a living wage, expansion of social welfare programs and massive investment in both job training and public works. Keyserling and Rustin argued that public works projects were not simply essential to combating unemployment, particularly joblessness related to automation; they also believed that such projects—which included modernizing and developing infrastructure, building schools and hospitals, and revitalizing inner-cities—would enhance quality of life.40

In an era in which Milton Friedman’s vision of economic freedom is hegemonic, the above calls for redistributive approaches to poverty and unemployment sound like the imaginings of a fringe inured to Realpolitik. In the mid/late-1960s, however, Killingsworth, Harrington, Rustin and Keyserling were hardly outliers. Indeed, each of them had been well positioned in mainstream liberal political institutions; this is especially true of economists Killingsworth and Keyserling, who had chaired either economic planning or advisory committees in the Roosevelt and/or Truman Administrations. Likewise, as mentioned previously, Secretary of Labor W. Willard Wirtz and Senators Joseph P. Clark and Hubert Humphrey had proposed redistributive policies and/or legislation that proceeded from the view that any serious effort to reduce poverty and unemployment would require public works. In this context, it should be of little surprise that the Freedom Budget had initially generated a great deal of enthusiasm and support from civil rights leaders and activists as well as many within organized labor.41

As the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War deepened fissures within the old New Deal Democratic coalition, support for a real assault on poverty in the form of a “Freedom Budget for All” or some other redistributive program would fade. Still, even as the election of President Richard Nixon (1968) signaled the beginning of the end of New Deal liberalism, the shortcomings of the War on Poverty reflected the hegemony of a comparatively conservative approach to government stewardship of the economy—one that eschewed regulatory and redistributive policies in favor of stimulus—that, as Michael Harrington argued in 1965, dated back to the Second New Deal.42 Indeed, as historians such as Judith Russell and Judith Stein have argued, the failures of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty “on the cheap” were wed to the hubris of commercial Keynesians who were little concerned with the changing structure of the American economy.43 Though Daniel Patrick Moynihan may have conceived The Negro Family as a vehicle for galvanizing support for antipoverty measures targeting African Americans, his emphasis on institutional rather than economic sources of inequality complemented the CEA’s inadequate antipoverty strategy, as both divorced African American poverty from political economy.

Fifty years following the publication of The Negro Family, Moynihan’s brand of institutional structuralism has come to dominate discourse and policy related to poverty, a product of the “Reagan Revolution” and the ongoing rightward drift of American politics. Since the 1980s, underclass ideology—which presumed that black and brown poor people’s cultural and moral deficiencies were significantly if not entirely to blame for poverty and its attendant social consequences—has served to justify the enactment of draconian drug laws, mass incarceration, cuts to public housing and social welfare programs (including the elimination of AFDC by way of the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which then-Senator Daniel P. Moynihan ardently opposed44), privatization of public schools, and even the recovery efforts in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina (August 29, 2005). When one considers that Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans 40years, nearly to the day, following the formal release of Moynihan Report, there may be no more fitting tribute to the legacy of The Negro Family than the Bush Administration’s and New Orleans officials’ decision not to reopen the city’s public housing projects—a move, as John Arena discusses in detail, that was rooted in a discourse centered on black social pathology and “concentrated poverty” that was worthy of Moynihan.45

In the 1960s many of Moynihan’s critics had feared that his culturalist analysis of poverty would not only deflect attention away from the root causes of poverty, but held the potential to result in either inadequate or even punitive policy measures. Their concerns, it seems, were well founded. And the fact that Moynihan is widely regarded as prescient rather than Killingsworth, Harrington, or Rustin only ensures that the poor will always be with us—on the unemployment line, on public assistance, working multiple jobs, hustling, attending or choosing not to attend poorly funded schools, living in overcrowded and decaying neighborhoods, rotating in and out of prison, etc.46 None of this is what Moynihan had in mind of course, but it is the logical conclusion of a perception of unemployment and low income that sidesteps the unambiguous relationship between a dearth of decent paying jobs for low-skilled workers—which might only be redressed, as Killingsworth argued, by direct government intervention in the form of government sponsored employment and government sponsored wage supports—and poverty.


I came up with the idea for this essay and the symposium in which it appears when I happened to read Judith Stein’s Running Steel, Running America against Daniel P. Moynihan’s The Negro Family in preparation for a new graduate course on race and poverty in post-war America. Reading the Moynihan Report in the context of Stein’s discussion of the two-line struggle between left labor liberals and the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations’ Council of Economic Advisers over the meaning of “full employment” crystallized for me that Moynihan’s avowed support for full employment measures did not necessarily imply a commitment to substantial labor market intervention, especially in light of his focus on black social pathology. With this in mind, I would like to thank Judith Stein for inspiring me as she has since my days as a doctoral student at Columbia University. I would also like to thank graduate advisees Diane Russeau-Pletcher, Ryan Melson, and Marc Hetzel for providing thoughtful commentary and stimulating discussions about poverty and racial inequality in the United States.
1. James T. Patterson, Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle Over Black Life from LBJ to Obama (Basic Books, 2010): xii.
2. Patterson, Freedom is Not Enough, xiii-xv, 68-71.
3. Stack claimed that under/unemployed fathers were often still in the picture and single-mothers frequently plugged into effective kinship networks.
4. See my discussion of Laura Carper below.
5. William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 4.
6. Patterson, Freedom is Not Enough, xvi, 149-157.
7. Patterson, Freedom is Not Enough, 213.
8. Daniel P. Moynihan. “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” in The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, ed. Lee Rainwater and William A. Yancey (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1967), 43.
9. Daniel P. Moynihan, US Senate, Committee on Finance, The Work and Responsibility Act of 1994, July 13, 1994, transcript, 12.
10. Moynihan, “The Negro Family” in The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, 52-55, 58, 61-64.
11. Moynihan, “The Negro Family” in The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, 93.
12. Moynihan, “The Negro Family” in The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, 93.
13. Daniel P. Moynihan. “Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family, Daedalus—Special Edition The Negro American, Vol. 94, No. 4 (Fall, 1965): 748, 751-54, 758.
14. Moynihan, “Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family,” 764-65.
15. Moynihan, “Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family,” 764, 768-69.
16. Laura Carper, “The Negro Family and the Moynihan Report” in The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, 469-470. Carper’s contribution to the Rainwater and Yancey collection was originally published in Dissent, March-April, 1966.
17. Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth-Century US History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 148-149.
18. O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge,146-49.
19. O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge, 149-51.
20. Judith Stein, Running Steel, Running America: Race, Economic Policy, and the Decline of Liberalism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 71-73, 77-78; Judith Russell, Economics Bureaucracy, and Race: How Keynesians Misguided the War on Poverty, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 35-36, 40.
21. Stein, Running Steel, 70; Russell, Economics Bureaucracy, and Race, 23-25.
22. Robert J. Lampman, “The Low Income Population and Economic Growth,” in US Congress, Joint Economic Committee, Study Papers (Washington, 1959), 26-31.
23. Carl M. Brauer, “Kennedy, Johnson, and the War on Poverty,” Journal of American History, Vol 69, No. 1 (June, 1982): 104-06; The Annual Report of the Council of Economic Advisers, (Washington, 1964), 54.
24. Brauer, “Kennedy, Johnson, and the War on Poverty,”108.
25. Daniel P. Moynihan, “The Professionalization of Reform,” The Public Interest, No. 1 (fall 1965): 10.
26. Moynihan, “The Professionalization of Reform,” 10-11.
27. Because Moynihan was assistant secretary of Labor, some might be inclined to conflate Secretary of Labor Wirtz’s and Moynihan’s positions on employment. As Samuel Merrick, assistant to the Secretary of Labor (1962-1968) pointed out, however, Moynihan and Wirtz had a complicated if not antagonistic relationship. And while Moynihan did call for “full employment,” the meaning of full employment, as I will elaborate on below, was contested—it did not necessarily equate with public works. Indeed, Moynihan’s emphasis on the distinctiveness of black poverty, his indifference to the consequences of transformation of the American economy, and his technocratic calls for tweaks to the provision of services targeting poor people placed him more in line with the CEA’s tax-and-spend antipoverty strategies rather than Wirtz’s calls for redistributive policies such as public works. Michael L. Gillette, Launching the War on Poverty: An Oral History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 108.
28. Charles C. Killingsworth, Jobs and Income for Negroes (Policy Papers in Human Resources and Industrial Relations), A Joint Publication of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, (University of Michigan and Wayne State University, 1968): 35-37.
29. Killingsworth, Jobs and Income for Negroes, 35.
30. Killingsworth, Jobs and Income for Negroes, 36-39.
31. Killingsworth criticism on Moynihan centered on his faith in transfer payments in the form of family allowances to redress poverty. Killingsworth saw Moynihan’s proposed Family Assistance Plan (FAP)—which would have provided family allowances to households with children via billion in annual transfer payments—as wasteful and, like Milton Friedman’s proposed family tax credit, illustrative of an ideological commitment to market-centered anti-poverty programs rather than government intervention. Killingsworth, Jobs and Income for Negroes, 55.
32. Killingsworth, Jobs and Income for Negroes, 64-71, 80-81.
33. Killingsworth, Jobs and Income for Negroes, 59-62, 71-78.
34. Killingsworth, Jobs and Income for Negroes, 50.
35. Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics,” Commentary 39 (February 1965): 2.
36. Michael Harrington, “The Politics of Poverty,” Dissent 12 (September 1965): 416.
37. As Rustin put it, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was possible for a white ethnic immigrant “to start at the bottom, as an unskilled or semiskilled worker, and move up the ladder acquiring new skills along the way,” particularly in the era of a burgeoning industrial unionism. By 1965, however, growth had slowed, unionization had leveled off, and America “was in the midst of a technological revolution” which, according to Rustin, altered “the fundamental structure of the labor force, destroying unskilled and semi-skilled jobs—jobs in which Negroes are disproportionately concentrated.” Rustin, “From Protest to Politics,” 2-3. Harrington echoed Rustin’s assessment. Like the Moynihan Report, “The Politics of Poverty,” was pessimistic about the efficacy of extant anti-poverty measures. But while Moynihan’s circumspection centered on the crisis in the black family, Harrington argued that “in a period of automation and cybernation” job training and tax cuts would be unable to provide sufficient economic opportunities to poor people. Drawing on the 1964 Majority Report of Senator Joseph P. Clark’s Subcommittee on Employment and Manpower, Harrington observed that while output in “non-agricultural, goods-producing sector [of] the economy” increased substantially 1957-1963, “employment in this sector decreased by 300,000 jobs.” The same period witnessed a rise in service and white-collar work, a pattern that dated back to 1956. Worse yet, the Department of Labor’s 1965 Manpower Report noted, “even with the extraordinary stimulus of the tax cut, goods-producing industries barely held their own as a percentage of total employment.“ Harrington ultimately argued that the combination of economic stimulus and programs intended to train or even acculturate the low-skilled youth and unemployed workers—programs like Community Action pre-schools, Job Corps, and MDTA—would do nothing to counter the decline of the manufacturing. Harrington, “The Politics of Poverty,” 419-22.
38. Harrington, “The Politics of Poverty,” 424-26.
39. Rustin’s Commentary article called for “refashioning of our political economy” via full employment, abolition of slums, reconstruction of education, and public works. Though the Moynihan Report gives the impression that Rustin called for “preferential treatment,” Rustin was clear that what would later be known as affirmative action would be of little help to most poor blacks. Rustin, “From Protest to Politics,” 4-5. Rustin’s contention in Commentary was the same as that staked out by A. Philip Randolph at the 1963 March on Washington. “Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act,” Randolph declared at the rally, “but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white?” Algernon Austin, “The Unfinished March: An Overview, Economic Policy Institute,” Economic Policy Institute, June 18, 2013,
40. Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013), 90-96.
41. Le Blanc and Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans, 110-17.
42. Harrington, “The Politics of Poverty,” 414; Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform provides a comprehensive analysis of the tension between regulatory and fiscal approaches to economic stewardship during the New Deal and World War II. Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War, (New York: Vintage Books, 1995).
43. Russell, Economics Bureaucracy, and Race, 6-10, 151-57; Stein, Running Steel, Running America, 70-76.
44. Patterson, Freedom is Not Enough, 167.
45. See John Arena’s “Why Does Angela Glover Blackwell Hate Public Housing? The Ideological Foundations of Public Housing Dismantlement in the United States and New Orleans.” Social Scientists Adolph Reed and Stephen Steinberg have traced the ideological impetus behind “Moving to Opportunity” (September, 2005)—the document signed by nearly 200 prominent liberal social scientists and historians calling for the permanent, “voluntary” dispersal of Hurricane Katrina’s poorest victims—to underclass ideology. Like the motives shaping HOPE VI, “Moving to Opportunity,” Reed and Steinberg contend, presumed that “concentrated poverty”—the lineal descendant of Moynihan’s tangle of pathologies—undercut poor people’s institutional life which, when combined with an irrational commitment place, set into motion debilitating modes of behavior that stymied their integration into mainstream society. According to Reed and Steinberg, “Moving to Opportunity” not only licensed the permanent displacement of the city’s poorest residents by providing a justification for razing rather than rebuilding low-income housing in the Crescent City, but in focusing on urban ecology rather than employment structures the document ignored the fact that displacement of poor, low-skilled residents would do little to enhance either their employment prospects or living conditions. Adolph Reed and Stephen Steinberg, “Liberal Bad Faith in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina,” Political Sociology: States, Power, and Societies, Vol.13, No. 1 (Fall 2006): 1-6.
46. Even many contemporary critics of the Moynihan Report have accepted the narrow parameters of poverty discourse established by institutional structuralism. Historian Daniel Geary, for example, recently argued that Moynihan’s focus on black social pathology deflected attention from institutional racism. This was certainly a position that some critics of the Moynihan Report staked out in the 1960s. Nevertheless, there are two problems with this charge. First, as his defenders correctly argue, Moynihan identified racism as the ultimate source of poverty and, by extension, the tangle of pathology that threatened to arrest black progress. Second, as Killingsworth and Rustin argued, institutional racism, though real and relevant, was not the principal cause of black poverty in the 1960s nor is it today. The tendency to criticize Moynihan for his racial insensitivity or even racism (and to be clear Geary does not cast Moynihan as a racist) is no less illustrative of the hegemony of what we know today as neoliberalism than are defenses of Moynihan that presume his identification of racism as the root cause of poverty fully insulate him against the charge of victim blaming. Both perspectives look past the centrality of deindustrialization and an intensifying attack on social wage protections, particularly in the context of the legacy of housing discrimination, as sources of persistent poverty among African Americans. Daniel Geary, “The Moynihan Report is Turning 50. Its Ideas on Black Poverty Were Wrong Then and Are Wrong Now,” June 30, 2015, .