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Prophet ignored — why was Moynihan’s warning of a looming family Armegeddon not heeded? Part II

Why did Moynihan’s good intentions end up with such disappointing results? The missing faith factor.

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Moynihan overlooked the faith-based assets in the African American community.

Fifty years ago in March 1965 a government report on the state of the African American family was quietly released. Then, on August 18th, an immense controversy broke out over a report on the state of the African American family. The author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who later became a U.S. Senator for New York), claimed that the African American family was in crisis. He forecast disaster for our society if single-parent families became the norm. The report still stands out as a landmark and is relevant today. This is the second of three feature articles on the report and its relation to NYC religion.

Moynihan concluded that drastic government action was needed. He said that more welfare and other redistributive programs were needed. In fact, he wrote his famous memo as a spur to passing the War on Poverty legislation and provided the inspiration for President Lyndon B. John’s address to Harvard University in June 1965 to kick off the effort. Yet, the resultant programs, over 100 different ones, resulted not in a stronger African American family, but a disaster of accelerated family disintegration.

Since 1965, many scholars recognize that the 1960’s Great Society anti-poverty programs were not very effective in general and had a number of negative consequences. One consequence was the passage by both Democrats and Republicans of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that emphasized work, family and faith.

Why did Moynihan’s good intentions end up with such disappointing results?

First, Moynihan’s the most famous stumble was the timing of his report. The conservative columnists M. Stanton Evans and Robert Novak made the report known in a famous newspaper column entitled “Inside Report: The Moynihan Report.” They not only gave the nickname to the report but also used Moynihan’s thesis of a disintegrating African American family to explain the civil disturbances in African American urban areas. In 1965 there was the Watts’ riot in Los Angeles and in 1966 the riot in Cleveland.

Nation shaken by dozens of riots.

Nation shaken by dozens of riots.

A political furor between conservatives and liberals was touched off. You could say that Moynihan’s timing of the report’s release during the urban riots backfired. As a result, it became impossible for liberals to be pro-family. Consequently, liberal solutions tended to reduce the family to an outcome of economic or political factors. Moynihan, who was an idiosyncratic liberal, also became the target of criticism by his fellow liberals. Many of the national leaders of the older Protestant denominations denounced the report and its author.

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Second, after Moynihan’s Report was publicly released, African American critics were particularly outraged by its negative tone about African American family life. They said that Moynihan was looking only on the negative side of African American family life while ignoring the positive.

Later critics have rightly characterized the Moynihan Report and the War on Poverty as a “deficit approach,” meaning that their analysis and solutions tended to ignore “the assets” within the African American community that could be brought to bear on African American family problems. Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980,  reflected on his and his liberal colleagues’ approach, “The moral agonizing among whites was strikingly white-centered. Whites had created the problem, it was up to whites to fix it, and there was very little in the dialogue that treated blacks as responsible actors.” African Americans often thought that they were subjects of experiments without their input. At that time Moynihan did not recognize that the problem of family disintegration would become widespread among Whites too. Later, he would expand his thesis to include all of society.

In contrast an asset perspective recognizes the great strengths of African Americans that lay within their culture, churches, determined parents and entrepreneurship. The asset perspective says that any solution to problems should firstrecognize and utilize the assets that African Americans bring to the table. Too often, early poverty programs reflected the secularized ideology of intellectual elites and ignored the empowering role of faith within the African American community.

Third, Moynihan never really said what was the original cause of the dramatic turn in the state of the African American family. He merely said that somehow a self-sustaining deterioration got started. He then hurried by this explanatory gap to say that African American society needed the massive social programs of the Great Society.

So, a fourth mistake was that Moynihan’s implied solution of massive government programs took us down a road that played down the importance of entrepreneurship, moral discipline and faith-based approaches. The playing down of entrepreneurship, morality and faith did not emerge out of the research that Moynihan used. Unfortunately, at this point the government statisticians were officially blind to faith.

The ambiguous legacy of W.E.B. Dubois

When he wrote his famous report on the crisis of the African American family, Daniel Patrick Moynihan still lived intellectually in the shadow of W.E.B. DuBois, the founder of the NAACP and a pioneering sociologist, who had argued in the early Twentieth Century that government and legal action was the priority for African Americans. DuBois was probably right during his day, but the legal-political mindset lived on long after it was wise. This mindset looked to government solutions and not to private enterprise, moral discipline or faith-based solutions within the African American community.

Indeed, DuBois had famously criticized African American educator Booker T. Washington for his vocational training, self-help and faith-based solution. DuBois also called pastors “tricksters.”

Despite DuBois’ antagonism toward church leaders, the civil rights movement was mostly moved forward by the African American churches. They had come to accept DuBois’s political approach more than Washington’s (and he was long dead while DuBois lived on). The great benefit was that faith-based motivation of the churches’ involvement powered the legal and constitutional successes.

Today, Booker T. Washington is more relevant than W.E.B. DuBois.


The downside was that there was so much emotional investment by many church leaders in legal-political solutions that they couldn’t change gears to take advantage of the new economic and educational playing field. Their mentality was too political and antagonistic to moral discipline, faith-based solutions and entrepreneurial solutions. Among high school youth there even grew up an antagonism toward educational achievement as “playing white” and a claim that working entry level jobs at places like McDonald’s was a sucker’s game in a dead-end job (research pretty clearly indicates that such jobs are an effective ladder to success).

However, once legal equality in the rules of the game were obtained, there needed to be a turning back to Booker T. Washington’s strategy of private enterprise, moraldisciplines and faith-based solutions. Government resources needed to be joined to developing individual initiative and community values. But the government was also ill-prepared to make the shift.

A secular flaw in the War on Poverty

The war on poverty advocates acted as if they were allergic to religion and personal righteousness. The most famous tract of the War on Poverty period may have been Michael Harrington’s 1962 book The Other America. President Kennedy read the book and ordered the staff to work on drawing up the War on Poverty. One staffer was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who  wrote his famous tract on the crisis of the African American family. One thing that stands out about Harrington’s work and, later Moynihn’s, is that they ignored the role of faith, worldview, and values.

Later, Harrington admitted that he had left a hole in the heart of the poor. Toward the last years of his life he wrote The Politics at God’s Funeral. The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization (1983) and lectured on the need to add the spiritual dimension in addressing poverty.

Moynihan himself only mentioned religion in passing. All of his implied solutions were secular government initiatives that might use the church but didn’t value faith-based solutions for their own potential. Many African American churches participated in the War on Poverty, but their most important assets of moral discipline and spiritual transformation did not have a legally-sanctioned role in the programs. In fact the officials promulgated a secular mindset.

The Moynihan report itself hardly mentions the church, which is the primary social institution in the African American community. Partly, the omission was because in the 1950s federal government data collection ceased to include religion as one of its topics. Moynihan was asked to work with federal data sources. Also, Moynihan was beginning to despair over the possibility of religious influence in politics. In his Beyond the Melting Pot he concluded that religion would play no future role in politics in places like New York City, his home town. This is a conclusion that his co-author Nathan Glazer later regretted. Today, with the faith-based initiatives over two administrations, one Democratic and one Republican, there is a renewed awareness that faith and family are two intertwined strengths in the African American community. Take one away, and you have a “deficit-perspective.”

Social work profession’s long history of ignoring religion’s role in social welfare

Since the 1930s, social service practioners, policy makers and scholars have consistently downplayed the role of religion in social and personal well-being. The social work field has also operated as if the African American church is insignificant. University of Chicago’s Martin Marty observed that “most of the time the literature of the profession genially and serenely ignores religion.”

Ram Cnaan and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work say that their review of social work course outlines “indicated that religious issues are generally ignored in secular schools.”

In 1999  they surveyed social work practice and education for the last 70 years. What the found was that there was “little or no mention of religious-based social services. In general, social work education and research dissociate themselves from religion and its contribution to the profession…” Margaret Harrison noted in her study that “little attention has been paid to the welfare contribution of religious organizations.” Cnaan and his colleagues also examined the twenty most frequently used books in social courses at colleges and universities in 1993-1994. What they found was “that, with few exceptions, the texts made no mention of any congregational or sectarian aspect of social work with the exception” of a historical reference. “Any textual references to religious based social services ended with the Great Depression and the Social Security Act of 1935.”

In very recent years there has been some grudging recognition by social work professionals of the role of religion in social well-being. A few texts have begun to include sections on religion and social work.


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

Next see Part III After August 18th: The Post-Civil Rights Generation



  • Read this on the anniversary this year. thanks.

  • Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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