Misreading the Lost Moment of 1965

Freedom Is Not Enough:

The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle Over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama

  • James T. Patterson
  • Basic Books, 2010; 264 pages, $33.95

Among the characteristics of what Angelo M. Codevilla calls America’s Ruling Class is widespread skepticism, expressed by Republicans as well as Democrats, of the ability of public policy to do anything about the breakdown of the American family system that was flourishing in the mid-twentieth century. From the loss of life-long marriage as the social ideal to the rise in cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth rates, the majority of educated Americans today would likely agree with James Q. Wilson, who wrote in 2002 that “if you believe, as I do, in the power of culture, you will realize that there is very little one can do.” That skepticism—often accompanied by a blind faith in a historical inevitability of family decline—however, does not keep public intellectuals like Wilson from spilling oceans of ink in quantifying and explaining the meltdown of the social sector since 1970. That herculean effort suggests that such scholars may privately wish as much might be done to rebuild the American family system as they evidently believe can indeed be done to rebuild the economy, fix the health-care system, or strengthen federal anti-poverty measures.

These contradictions are on display in an otherwise impressive book by James T. Patterson (no relation to this writer), an accomplished historian and professor emeritus at Brown University. Focused on the family crisis as it relates to African Americans, and its interpretations among the chattering classes, Freedom Is Not Enough uses the career and writings of Daniel Patrick Moynihan—who believed that public policy can reverse family decline—as a lens through which to understand the policy community’s failure to address family breakdown among a segment of the population that has suffered from it the most. Published on the forty-fifth anniversary of Moynihan’s report on “the Negro family,” which warned of an “approaching complete breakdown” of the African-American family in the inner city, Patterson’s portrait of the late senator explores the disconnect between the Great Society as Moynihan’s hoped-for solution to the crisis in the black family and the real social breakdown that occurred as the War on Poverty unfolded. Patterson does not hide his admiration for Moynihan and laments the degree to which his 1965 report was so demonized as to essentially place a gag order on public discourse of the black family, hampering the search for policy solutions to this day.

Patterson begins his narrative in 1965, when President Johnson, fresh on the heels of his landslide election and holding Congress in the palm of his hand, raised the hopes of liberals with a Howard University commencement address that committed his administration to working not just for “equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and a result.” Declaring “freedom is not enough,” LBJ promised the jubilant crowd, according to Patterson, “the most far-reaching civil rights agenda in modern U.S. history,” a bold agenda that was essentially “affirmative action, to be secured via large-scale socioeconomic programs.” Reflecting the extent to which Moynihan and his then-internal paper, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, informed the address, Johnson insisted upon “social programs better designed to hold families together.” Indeed, the president attributed the unique plight of lower-class black Americans to “the breakdown of the Negro family structure,” which he blamed, like Moynihan, on “centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man.”

Despite the fact that Johnson had already declared his War on Poverty and had whipped Congress into passing a plethora of large-scale, Great Society programs, Patterson claims that neither the Howard commencement address nor the Moynihan report translated into anything programmatic. He captures the drama of 1965 in a chapter devoted to, in Moynihan’s words, “the moment lost,” when the momentum of the Johnson policy agenda “quickly fell victim to a host of events and misunderstandings.” Not only was the president forced to divert attention to the Vietnam War but he was also compelled to deal with the outbreak of the Watts Riots in Los Angeles—which shocked white America—dampening enthusiasm for addressing racial issues. Meanwhile, the report, which quantified with statistics a “tangle of pathology” among lower-class blacks, was selectively leaked to a press that was seeking explanations for the worst urban violence in U.S. history, fueling misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Once the report was publicly released, Moynihan and his research came under heavy fire by a deluge of critics, some of whom called him a fascist and the report racist propaganda. Rather than defending the document or its author, the Johnson administration not only downplayed any talk of black family structure but also distanced itself from its utopian vision of equality of results. As Patterson puts it: “Liberalism, so strong in the spring, fell on the defensive, never again in the twentieth century to regain the political power it had enjoyed in early 1965.”

Confusing Welfare Policy for Family Policy

That overstatement may reflect Patterson’s political sentiments, as he suggests throughout the book that the plight of black America, and the black family, is due to the federal government doing too little. But if liberalism was stopped in its tracks in 1965, how does one account for the fact that Congress never retreated from the War on Poverty? That domestic undertaking continues to be pursued through seventy different federal “means-tested” programs to support low-income Americans, including TANF, Head Start, food stamps, public housing, home energy assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Medicaid. According to the Heritage Foundation, Congress has spent, since 1964, about $17 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars) on this massive social initiative, more than two and a half times the costs of all military wars in U.S. history.

If Patterson means that the family component of Moynihan’s vision—of what the report calls “restoring the Negro American Family structure” by ensuring that all federal programs have the effect “of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family”—was lost in the summer of 1965, he is certainly correct. Indeed, as Patterson traces the impact of the attack on the Moynihan Report on public discourse and public policy—including the efforts of its author when he worked in the Nixon White House and served in the U.S. Senate—never again would any administration or national political figure attempt to translate data found in reports like The Negro Family into serious policy prescriptions that would help black families recover what all families need most of all: marriage and fathers. “The trail of misunderstandings,” Patterson’s account demonstrates, would indeed be “treacherous.”

Even Moynihan’s own prescriptions—from the Family Assistance Plan that he drafted for Nixon to the specific recommendations he outlined in the prestigious Godkin lectures at Harvard on the twentieth anniversary of The Negro Family—did not directly address the issue of family structure. For certain, the political class finally embraced the report—while the media hailed its author as a prophet—in that anniversary year (1985). Its central thesis could no longer be suppressed or denied: the percentage of black children born out of wedlock had jumped to 60 percent, and the percentage of black women in their late 20s who are married had plummeted to 33 percent. More important, as the New York Times reported on the eve of his Harvard talks, Moynihan had come to believe that family disintegration was no longer limited to blacks, but has become “ominous . . . for all races.” As Newsweek covered the lectures, Moynihan was by then calling for a national policy aimed at saving the American family, and one “without regard to racial distinctions.” But few politicians had the courage to follow up on that call, not even the respected senator, who might have found support among social conservatives in the Reagan administration.

But Patterson may not consider the lack of attention to family structure by either party as the real tragedy. Although a historian, Patterson falls at times into the annoying habit of many social scientists of confusing the normative task of exalting the married-parent family as the social ideal in law and public policy with a “therapeutic” one of materially assisting “poor families”—in most cases broken families. Like Moynihan, the historian seems unaware that when greater attention is given to the former, less attention is required by the later, or that the undisputed legacy of expansive welfare systems—wherever they have been implemented—is to displace marriage and fathers from families. Although Patterson is clearly troubled by the social pathology caused by family breakdown and acknowledges that unwed childbearing is problematic, he nonetheless implies that a European-style welfare state is necessary to alleviate the multiple side effects of family decline, even as he acknowledges the mixed record of the War on Poverty. That bias is reflected in the one sentence he gives to Kay Hymowitz, a scholar who has exposed the “forty-plus years of lies” with her insistence that the loss of a marriage culture is the more fundamental problem, compared to the four pages he devotes to Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, sociologists who advance the discredited notion that the retreat from matrimony in the black community is due to insufficient social and economic resources and who repeat the same old liberal mantra of more federal job programs and social services.

He also has little good to say about the GOP-led welfare reform of 1996, even though the legislation was inspired by the family-structure insights of Moynihan. Just like Republicans who overstate the degree to which the legislation reduced government dependency, Patterson overstates the degree to which the mere replacement of one “means-tested” program—Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needed Families (TANF)—left the poor, many of whom he believes “could not help themselves,” out in the cold. Perhaps his admiration for Moynihan, who despised the legislation, influenced him to refer to the measure as “welfare ‘reform,’” reflecting his view that the legislation was just another example of cold-hearted Republicans cutting the safety net and frustrating Johnson’s promise of racial equality.

Resisting the Hard Conclusions

In these respects, Freedom Is Not Enough fails to advance the debate about the importance of the married-parent family that the Moynihan report recognized any more than did its rediscovery in 1985. As much as Patterson’s review of “America’s struggle over black family life from LBJ to Obama” offers a fair treatment of the wide range of scholars and commentators that have participated in the ensuing debate, it pulls back from the same hard conclusions that America’s Ruling Class has stubbornly resisted since the 1960s. Instead of challenging the groupthink, Patterson seems content to throw his lot in with “most reformers today” that “recognize that the powerful demographic, economic, and cultural trends since the 1960s have caused the decline of marriage,” trends which the same reformers claim “are unlikely to be reversed.” That the destructive patterns of out-of-wedlock births and fatherless households also haunt other Western democracies, which he notes more than once, seems to provide cover for Patterson from acknowledging the role of the sea change in law and public policy during the 1960s and 1970s in fueling these pathologies in a country that has been significantly more marriage-centric and child-friendly than Western Europe.

Nowhere does Patterson, for example, touch on the role of the Supreme Court, cheered on by the same people that trashed the Moynihan Report, in deconstructing America’s family system, through a host of decisions, including Roe v. Wade, the 1973 edict that triggered immediate declines in both marriage and birth rates, and disproportionately so among blacks. Nor does he explore the destructive legacy of no-fault divorce or the government’s aggressive promotion of birth control and dispensing of contraceptive devices, elements of what the late historian and JFK biographer William Manchester calls “the general revolt against constraints.” Moynihan in many ways went along with this revolt; he fully supported the government’s war on fertility and endorsed the courts’ overreach into family law by voting against the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996. By mocking traditional American attitudes toward sex, gender roles, children, divorce, and parenthood, the net result of that comprehensive assault was that matrimony—and the behaviors required to sustain it over a lifetime—lost its favored status in law and public policy. The consequences were catastrophic. While the upper-middle classes, like Moynihan, have been able to shield themselves to some degree from the consequences of that revolution, the working-middle and lower classes, including the African-American community, have suffered the most.

The tragedy, therefore, may not be, as Patterson argues, a country that is “remiss in its social safety net” failing to act upon President Johnson’s heady vision. No, the tragedy is the unwillingness of the Ruling Class to reconsider that the sexual and feminist revolution that it has championed has made this country less free, less equal, less fair, and yes, less prosperous. As long as conservative scholars have little interest in rethinking the changes of the past forty-years, claiming as does James Q. Wilson, “We do not want fewer freedoms” and that “most of us . . . do not want to change any of the gains women have made,” any recovery of the family—black or white—that Moynihan knew was the key to the promise of America will unfortunately share the same fate of his maligned but still-prescient report.

Mr. Patterson is editor of The Family in America.