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Anniversary of a prophecy of Armageddon for two-parent families, Part I

“The Moynihan Report,” was released as a seemingly bland government report in March 1965

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Daniel Patrick Moynihan, abandoned by his father, championed 2-parent families.

Fifty years ago, a seemingly bland government report in March 1965 by the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research under the title “The Negro Family. The Case for National Action.” It might have died in the bowels of the bureaucracy's archives. But a few months later,  on August 18th, an immense controversy broke out over the report. The author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who later became a U.S. Senator for New York), claimed that the African American family was in crisis. The report still stands out as a landmark and is relevant today. We will feature three articles on the report and its relation to NYC religion.

In the 1960s, long before he became New York’s U.S Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan labored in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy as one of those nameless researchers that produced facts for the government.

His social prophecy, which columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak labeled “The Moynihan Report,” was released as a seemingly bland government report in March 1965 by the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research under the title “The Negro Family. The Case for National Action.” At the time not even Moynihan saw the implications of his analysis for the wider society. His report isolated the problem to the African American community; only later did Moynihan see that the incipient trend would have society-wide implications.

Moynihan had spent some time in central Harlem and came away disturbed by the sharp decline of two parent families. The facts were clear.

In 1963 African American out-of-wedlock birth rates had increased from 18% in 1950 to 23% in 1963. In central Harlem 43% of the births to non-white women were out-of-wedlock. This figure was somewhat offset by marriages after births, but the trend was toward single-parent families. The figure for whites nationally was still just 3%.

Moynihan noticed that the alarming increase in African American family disintegration occurred while the economy was improving and welfare payments were increasing. Between 1950 and 1960 the rise and fall of African American family dysfunction roughly followed the rise and fall of the economy. This pattern actually affected all racial groups. But in 1960 the connection between African American family dysfunction and the economy was broken. The African American family started a rapid decline, disintegrating regardless of the general economic conditions. Even as the economy improved, the African American family accelerated in its disintegration.

By 1970 the out-of-wedlock birth rate had climbed to 38% among African Americans and was rising for all groups. Moynihan eventually came around to the idea that the trend that affected all groups.

By 2008 everyone else caught up to the out-of-wedlock birth rates that had provoked a panic in Moynihan in 1965. For all Americans the out-of-wedlock birth rate hit 41% and among African Americans it was 72%.

The situation may well be a social iceberg slowly moving toward social catastrophe. Moynihan told interviewer Charlie Rose, “If we don’t [do something about it], we will decline….The species has no experience of this.”

Single-parenting very often creates conditions of hardship for the parent and children. The poverty rate of female-headed families is about five times that of married couples. Single parent status harms boys and girls, but boys significantly more than girls. The boys are twice as likely to drop out of school and much more likely to hang out with nothing to do except get into trouble.

Robert Sampson has been analyzing neighborhoods in Chicago for a couple of years. He has found that neighborhoods with a high proportion of single parent families have more murders and robberies even after adjusting for other factors like income and race.

However, we would be terribly mistaken not to notice how many single parents often have great success in raising their children. Their courage, perseverance and skill is exemplary and an important resource for our work to strengthen families. We would learn a lot if we learned lessons from them. Also, children of single parent families help each other and their parents. Grandparents play an important role. Still, it is hard to raise children by yourself. Despite the many successes, the situation results in too many causalities. And the phenomenon is world-side.

The rise in out-of-wedlock births goes beyond our national borders. Social scientist James Q. Wilson says that the out-of-wedlock births affect “almost all of the Western world.”

The prophetic report might have disappeared from sight if the columnists Evans and Novak had not published their famous "Inside Report: The Moynihan Report" in the Washington Post on August 18, 1965.


Next read:

Part II: Prophet ignored — why was Moynihan’s warning of a looming family Armageddon not heeded?
Part III After August the Moynihan Report: The Post-Civil Rights Generation


  • Henry, Thanks for the links and comments. Very helpful.

    The lack of a holistic approach to Moynihan's report bedevils efforts to identify with, learn from, and give a helping hand to the poor. Orlando Paterson has a new book out on African American male teenagers at risk. What he found is that the African American teenagers recognize and respect moral arguments.

  • In scanning the replies to today's Kristof's piece and a counterpoint in The Week, it seems there is no more openness to the perspective of the Moynihan report than there ever was. Per The Week, the main problem is still seen to be economic, while a number of commenters on Kristof's piece say that family can no longer be defined along the one- or two-parent axis.

  • Like this!

  • I like your site. Religion in NYC is certainly an uncovered beat. I liked the map visuals and especially the about-us page. One suggestion: some gee-whiz factoids about religion in NYC, perhaps as a rotating element on the homepage. I remember seeing a surprisingly high percentage of New Yorkers are in church every week—that sort of thing. Let us know the feedback you’re getting.

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