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When social science is painful

The latest issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (#621, January 2009) is wholly focused on the report authored in 1965 (read it here) by Daniel Patrick Moynihan focused on the status of black families, “the most famous piece of social scientific analysis never published” (Massey and Sampson, pg. 6).  The report arose out of Moynihan’s experience in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations working on poverty policy; his small group of underlings included Ralph Nader, working in his first Washington job.  Inspired by Stanley Elkins’ work on slavery (a book of that name argued that slavery set in motion a still-continuing tendency to black economic and social dependency), Moynihan’s group examined the ways in which welfare policy was, as he saw it, perpetuating single-family households led mainly by women, and at the expense of social stability and racial progress.  [In what follows I am relying almost totally on the full set of essays appearing in the January 2009 AAPSS, and the pagination references that follow are to those articles.]

Moynihan was writing in the immediate aftermath of passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and a principle theme of the report is that the eradication of legal segregation would not be enough to assure racial equality given larger structural forces at work.  Pressures on the black family had produced a state of crisis, a “tangle of pathology” that was reinforcing patterns of African-American poverty, he wrote.  Moynihan’s larger purpose was to recommend massive federal interventions, a goal subverted, unfortunately, by the report’s rhetorical overreaching (e.g.:  matriarchy in black families were said to prevent black men from fulfilling “the very essence of the male animal from the bantam rooster to the four star general… to strut”).  The solution, in his view, was to be found in a major federal jobs program for African American men.

The report was leaked to the press and was, by and large, immediately condemned, first because it seemed to provide aid and comfort to racists in its emphasis on out-of-wedlock births as a demographic pathology, and second because it seemed to many readers a classic case of “blaming the victim.”  In fact, the term “blaming the victim” may have its genesis in William Ryan’s use of the phrase to critique Moynihan in the Nation.  I think it likely that cultural salience of these critiques was later reinforced by a memo he wrote to Richard Nixon advocating the idea that “the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect,’” a locution he came to regret since that one soundbite came to dominate the actual point of the memo, better encapsulated in this perspective:  “We need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades” (contrary to the impression given by the benign neglect comment, he was actually trying to be critical of the hot and racially charged rhetoric coming out of Vice President Agnew).  Moynihan’s report proved divisive in the African American community, endorsed on release by Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr., but condemned by James Farmer.  By the time the report itself was more widely read its reception was distorted by the press frame, and a counter-tradition of research, celebrating the distinctiveness of black community formation, was well underway.

Read by today’s lights the Moynihan report has in some respects been both confirmed and its critics also partly vindicated too.  The essays in this special issue offer many defenses.  Douglas Massey (the Princeton sociologist) and Sampson (chair of sociology at Harvard, both writing in the introduction at pgs. 7-8) defend the report against the accusation of sexism:

Although references to matriarchy, pathological families, and strutting roosters are jarring to the contemporary ear, we must remember the times and context.  Moynihan was writing in the prefeminist era and producing an internal memo whose purpose was to attract attention to a critical national issue.  While his language is certainly sexist by today’s standards, it was nonetheless successful in getting the attention of one particular male chauvinist, President Johnson, who drew heavily on the Moynihan Report for his celebrated speech at Howard University on June 4.

Ironically, though, the negative reactions to the leaked report (which suffered since the report itself was not publicly circulated, only the critical synopses) led Johnson himself to disavow it, and no major jobs program for black men was forthcoming as part of Great Society legislative action.  Moynihan left government soon afterward and found the national coverage, a lot of which attacked him as a bigot, scarring and unwarranted given the overall argumentative arc of the report.  Only when serious riots reerupted in 1968 did jobs get back on the agenda, but the watered down affirmative action programs that resulted failed to transform the economic scene for racial minorities while proving a galvanizing lightning rod for conservative opponents (Massey and Sampson, 10).  The main policy change relating to black men since then has been sharp increases in rates of incarceration, not rises in employment or economic stability, a phenomenon which is the focus of an essay by Bruce Western (Harvard) and Christopher Wildeman (University of Michigan).

Several of the contributors to the special issue mainly write to insist that Moynihan has been vindicated by history.  His simple thesis, that in subgroups pressures tending to disemploy males will in turn fragment families and produce higher incidences of out-of-wedlock birth, divorce, all at the main expense of women and children, is explicitly defended as having been vindicated by the newest data.  James Q. Wilson writes that the criticism the report received at the time “reflects either an unwillingness to read the report or an unwillingness to think about it in a serious way” (29). Harry Holzer, an Urban Institute senior fellow, argues that the subsequent trends in black male unemployment have only intensified since the 1960’s, thereby reaffirming the prescience of Moynihan’s position and strengthening the need for a dramatic federal response (for instance, Holzer defends the idea that without larger educational investments the destructive perceptions of working opportunities will produce perceptual barriers to cultural transformation).  The predicate in Ron Haskins (of the Brookings Institution) essay is announced by its title:  “Moynihan Was Right:  Now What?” (281-314).

Others argue that the Moynihan claims, which relied on the assumption that only traditional family arrangements can suitably anchor culture, ignore the vitality of alternative family forms that have become more common in the forty years since.  Frank Furstenberg notes that “Moynihan failed to see that the changes taking place in low-income black families were also happening, albeit at a slower pace, among lower-income families more generally” (95).  For instance, rates of single parenting among lower-income blacks have dropped while increasing among lower-income whites.  Linda Burton (Duke) and Belinda Tucker (UCLA) reiterate the criticism that the behavior of young women of color should not be pathologized, but is better understood as a set of rational responses to the conditions of cultural uncertainty that pervade poorer communities (132-148):  “Unlike what the Moynihan Report suggested, we do not see low-income African American women’s trends in marriage and romantic unions as pathologically out of line with the growing numbers of unmarried women and single mothers across all groups in contemporary American culture.  We are hopeful that the uncertainty that is the foundation of romantic relationships today will reinforce the adaptive skills that have sustained African American women and their families across time” (144).  Kathryn Edin (Harvard) et al., criticize Moynihan’s work for diverting research away from actual attention to the conditions of black fatherhood, which in turn has meant that so-called “hit and run” fathers could be criticized in ways that have raced far out of proportion to their actual incidence in urban populations (149-177).

The lessons drawn by the AAPSS commentators from all this for the practice of academic research are interesting.  One drawn by Massey relates to the “chilling effect on social science over the next two decades [caused by the Moynihan report and its reception in the media].  Sociologists avoided studying controversial issues related to race, culture, and intelligence, and those who insisted on investigating such unpopular notions generally encountered resistance and ostracism” (qtd. from a 1995 review in Massey and Sampson, 12). Because of this, and the counter-tendency among liberal/progressive scholars to celebrate single parenting and applaud the resilience of children raised in single-parent households, conservatives were given an ideological opening to drumbeat media reports about welfare fraud, drug usage rates, and violence, and to pathologize black men, an outcome M/S argue led to a conservative rhetoric of “moralistic hectoring and cheap sermonizing to individuals (“Just say no!”).  Not until William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), did the scholarly tide shift back to a publicly articulated case for social interventions more in tune with Moynihan’s original proposals – writing in the symposium WJW agrees with that judgment and traces the history of what he argues has been a social science abandonment of structural explanations for the emergence of poverty cultures.  The good news is arguably that “social scientists have never been in such a good position to document and analyze various elements in the ‘tangle of pathology’ he hypothesized” (Massey and Sampson, pg. 19).

The history of the report also calls attention to the limits of government action, a question with which Moynihan is said to have struggled for his entire career in public service.  Even accepting the critiques of family disintegration leaves one to ask what role the government might play in stabilizing family formations, a question now controversial on many fronts.  James Q. Wilson notes that welfare reform is more likely to shift patterns of work than patterns of family, since, e.g.,  bureaucrats can more reasonably ask welfare recipients to apply for a job than for a marriage license (32-33).  Moynihan’s answer was that the government’s best chances were to provide indirect inducements to family formation, mainly in the form of income guarantees (of the sort finally enacted in the Earned Income Tax Credit).  But asked at the end of his career about the role of government, Moynihan replied:  “If you think a government program can restore marriage, you know more about government than I do” (qtd. in Wilson, 33).

Moynihan was an intensely interesting intellectual who thrived, despite his peculiarities, in the United States Senate (four terms from New York before retiring and blessing Hillary Clinton’s run for his seat), as he had earlier serving as Nixon’s ambassador to India and Ford’s representative at the United Nations.  At his death in 2003, a tribute in Time magazine said that “Moynihan stood out because of his insistence on intellectual honesty and his unwillingness to walk away from a looming debate, no matter how messy it promised to be.  Moynihan offered challenging, groundbreaking – sometimes even successful – solutions to perennial public policy dilemmas, including welfare and racism.  This is the sort of intellectual stubbornness that rarely makes an appearance in Washington today” (Jessica Reaves, Time, March 27, 2003).  His willingness to defend his views even when deeply unpopular gave him a thick skin and the discipline to write big books during Senate recesses while his other colleagues were fundraising.

Moynihan’s intellectualism often put him at odds with Democratic orthodoxy, and maybe on the wrong side of the issue – he opposed the Clinton efforts to produce a national health insurance system, publicly opposed partial birth abortion (“too close to infanticide”), was famously complicit in pushing the American party line at the United Nations, a fact that has been much criticized as enabling the slaughter of maybe 200,000 victims, killed in the aftermath of Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor.  But he also held a range of positions that reassured his mainly liberal and working class base:  opposed to the death penalty, the Defense of Marriage Act, NAFTA, and a famous champion of reducing the government’s proclivity to classify everything as top secret.

But Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be forever linked to his first and most (in)famous foray into the nation’s conversation on race, which simultaneously revealed the possibilities for thoughtful social science to shape public policy and the risks of framing such research in language seeking to make such research dramatic and attention-getting in a glutted sea of white papers and task force reports whose issuance typically come and go without any serious notice.


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