The Moynihan Report, a brief history

Mon, 1965-03-01

On this date in 1965, we affirm the Moynihan Report. This was a guidepost for the “War on Poverty” domestic program instituted by President Lyndon Johnson.

It informed the American attempt to assimilate African America into the contemporary dominant racial system of the United States. Its formal title was The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. It was written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a white American sociologist serving as Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Johnson. In 1976, Moynihan was elected to the first of several terms as US senator from New York and continued to support liberal programs to try to end poverty.

His report focused on the deep roots of black poverty in the United States and controversially concluded that the high rate of families headed by single mothers would greatly hinder progress of blacks toward economic and political equality. Moynihan argued that the rise in black single-mother families was caused not by a lack of jobs (that would soon be the case, however, from the loss of jobs due to industrial restructuring) but by a destructive vein in ghetto culture, which could be traced to slavery and continued discrimination in the American South under Jim Crow. Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier had introduced that idea in the 1930s, but Moynihan was considered one of the first academics to defy conventional social-science wisdom about the structure of poverty.

While writing The Moynihan Report, he was employed in a political appointee position at the US Department of Labor, hired to help develop policy for the Johnson administration in its War on Poverty. In the course of analyzing statistics related to black poverty, Moynihan noticed something unusual: Rates of black male unemployment and welfare enrollment, instead of running parallel as they always had, started to diverge in 1962 in a way that would come to be called "Moynihan's scissors." When his report was published in 1965, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks was 25 percent, much higher than that of whites. Since that time, the number of single mother families has risen among all races, but was still higher among blacks.

In the introduction to his report, Moynihan wrote "the gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening." He also said that the collapse of the nuclear family in the black lower class would preserve the gap between possibilities for Negroes and other groups and favor other ethnic groups. He acknowledged the continued existence of racism and discrimination within society, despite the victories that blacks had won by civil rights legislation. Moynihan concluded, "The steady expansion of welfare programs can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States." More than 30 years later, S. Craig Watkins described Moynihan's conclusions: Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema (1998).

U.S. Department of Labor