Almost fifty years ago on August 18th, an immense controversy broke out over a report released six months earlier 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 final installment of three feature articles on the report and its relation to NYC religion.
The Moynihan Report, the War on Poverty and the field of social work lauded politics, economics and psychology as solutions to the crisis of the African American family. The mostly White do-gooders mostly ignored the role of faith within the African American community. When they did recognize religion, it was mainly because it intersected with their bias toward purely economic and political solutions.
In the meantime many African American churches started to grow skeptical of a purely worldly political solution to family problems. As new and renewed churches grew and obtained better educated leaders, their ability to speak out their faith against the cultural elite’s secularism grew. They increasingly have turned toward leading the whole U.S. community toward a holistic vision of civil equality, private enterprise, moral disciplines and faith-based solutions. Their responses to the poor treatment of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York are not less than a call for civil rights, but more than simply a political solution. The highly educated African American pastorate form the nucleus of a new “post-civil rights generation” that has taken up, in effect, the Booker T. Washington legacy, which itself was rooted in a Christian movement for personal holiness.
So, the true heirs of the Moynihan Report are these post-civil rights religious leaders and believers. They also emphasize the importance of the family as did Moynihan. However, they differ from the Moynihan of the 1960s in the means of progress, emphasizing a faith-based dimension and an asset perspective. They are picking up the mantle of Bookers T. Washington. Moynihan himself also later spoke up for a different means for curing poverty and family breakup and attacked the lowering of moral standards, a “defining deviancy down.” His moral message was not far from that of the new African American church leaders.
The 1996 Welfare Reform: a new emphasis on faith-based solutions
Today, a new emphasis of intertwining faith and family to solve community problems has become a most important social welfare policy initiative. It follows thirty years of African American church efforts to rebuild the African American families. The efforts culminated in a bi-partisan change of the welfare laws.
The 1996 landmark Welfare Reform Act (formally called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) had as its goals: (1) to “substantially reduce welfare case loads” and (2) to “reduce the incidence of out of wedlock pregnancies” and “to encourage the formation and maintenance of two parent families.”
Section 104 of the 1996 Act specifies a charitable choice initiative that legally defines a role for religion in social services. Among its provisions the “Charitable Choice provision:”
- prohibits discrimination against a social service organization “on the bases that the organization has a religious character;”
- religious charities receiving government funds may require employees to “adhere to [their] religious tenets and teachings” and submission to rules regulating the use of alcohol and drugs;
- prohibits religiously-based organizations that receive government funds from discriminating against clients “on the basis of religion, a religious belief, or refusal to actively participate in a religious practice;” and
- no government funds shall be expended for sectarian worship or instruction.”
The new welfare reform law helps us to utilize the faith-based resources within the African American community and other communities.
The impact of faith on unmarried African American families
Among African Americans, going to church, believing in God and connecting to fellow believers is strongly associated with more two-parent families, better marital relations, fewer unmarried pregnancies, and relatively quick movement of unmarried mothers into steady marriages.
Two sociologists Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger in 2004 found some remarkable trends in the national Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. Their initial conclusions are that church makes a difference and most African American mothers, churchgoing or not, are interested in faith-based programs to help their relationships.
Among African American mothers, those who are attending church fair much better than non-church attenders in their relationship to the fathers of their children.
They are 73% more likely to be married by the time of the birth of their child. They are also 31% more likely to report excellent relationships with their husbands.
Church going African American mothers are 148 times more likely than non-church going African American mothers to marry after a non-marital birth. They are 62% more likely to rate their relationships with the fathers of their children as very good/excellent.
The Implications of The Moynihan Report and its controversies for New York City
Moynihan’s 1965 report has turned out to be prophetic about our family situation today among all ethnicities. We need to heed his analysis. However, his early perspective was also self-defeating.
He made a common mistake among professionals by first focusing on the problems of African Americans and, later, Hispanics. This “deficit perspective” comes across as defining other races as objects of pity. The real and large functional resources that are within the African American, Hispanic and other poor communities tend to be ignored as possible leverages to fight the dissolution of families, resources such as exemplary and successful two-parent and single-parent families, kids helping each other and the role of faith.
A much better approach is an asset perspective toward groups and their conditions. The first questions are, what assets for building families are within the community? And what creative, socially and culturally savvy solutions are already being tried?
In New York City an asset perspective will also lead us to recognition that faith-based assets are important problem solving tools relevant to a changing city. Most of the city is not the old Sodom and Gomorrah or the “secular city” proclaimed by a book contemporaneous with The Moynihan Report, The Secular City by theologian Harvey Cox. New York City is not exactly a religious city, but it isn’t secular either. Perhaps, the best characterization of the city is that it is postsecular.
So, our solutions to urban problems need to be reframed to the postsecular condition of our city.
The asset perspective is also a better foundation for interracial and ethnic unity. The emphasis shifts from symbolic meetings and pity to functional unity whereby every party gains assets from each other for the solving of our urban problems. This exchange needs to be equitable and will mean that secular New Yorkers need to respect and participate as fellow citizens in the faith-based contributions to our city. On the other side, the city believers will need to work with seculars and appreciate their contributions (which includes constructive criticism!) to the religious.
The postsecular city means that we go beyond the culture wars to working together to keep our boat afloat. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be big debates and differences, but the tone will be different when we know we have to work together with intertwined resources so that we truly can have effective compassion and help for the needy people of our city.
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