The Negro Family: The Case For National Action

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The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (known as the Moynihan Report, 1965) was written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an American sociologist serving as Assistant Secretary of Labor[1] under President Lyndon B. Johnson of the United States. In 1976 Moynihan was elected to the first of several terms as U.S. Senator from New York and continued to support liberal programs to try to end poverty. His 1965 work focused on the deep roots of black poverty in the United States and concluded, controversially, that the high rate of families headed by single mothers would greatly hinder progress of African Americans toward economic and political equality.

Moynihan argued that the rise in Black single-mother families was not due to a lack of jobs (this would soon be the case due to the loss of jobs through industrial restructuring) but rather to a destructive vein in ghetto culture, which could be traced to slavery times and continued discrimination in the American South under Jim Crow. Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier had introduced this idea in the 1930s, but Moynihan was considered one of the first academics to defy conventional social-science wisdom about the structure of poverty. As he wrote later, "The work began in the most orthodox setting, the U.S. Department of Labor, to establish at some level of statistical conciseness what 'everyone knew': that economic conditions determine social conditions. Whereupon, it turned out that what everyone knew was evidently not so."[citation needed]


While writing The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, Moynihan was employed in a political appointee position at the U.S. 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:[2] 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."[3]

When Moynihan published his report in 1965, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks was 25 percent, much higher than that of whites.[4] Since that time, the number of single mother families has risen markedly among whites, blacks and Hispanics.


In the introduction to his report, Moynihan said that "the gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening."[5] He also said that due to the collapse of the nuclear family in the Black lower class, the gap between possibilities for Negroes and other groups would persist, and favor other ethnic groups. He acknowledged the continued existence of racism and discrimination within society, despite the victories that blacks had won through Civil Rights legislation.[5]

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".[6]

Since the early 1990s, William Julius Wilson, also a sociologist, has published numerous works about African Americans in the inner cities and the problems of poverty caused by the loss of good-paying industrial jobs, as well as the migration of residential populations, jobs and related facilities to the suburbs. He says that any type of affirmative action programs should be related to the economic status of target populations, rather than race. It is the poor across ethnic lines who need assistance and additional programs.

More than 30 years later, S. Craig Watkins described Moynihan's conclusions: Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema (1998):

The report concluded that the structure of family life in the black community constituted a 'tangle of pathology ... capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world,' and that 'at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.' Further, the report argued that the matriarchal structure of black culture weakened the ability of black men to function as authority figures. This particular notion of black familial life has become a widespread, if not dominant, paradigm for comprehending the social and economic disintegration of late twentieth-century black urban life.[7]


The Moynihan Report generated considerable controversy and has had long-lasting and important influence. Writing to President Lyndon Johnson, Moynihan argued that without access to jobs and the means to contribute meaningful support to a family, Black men would become systematically alienated from their roles as husbands and fathers. This would cause rates of divorce, child-abandonment and out-of-wedlock births to skyrocket in the Black community (a trend that had already begun by the mid-1960s)—leading to vast increases in the numbers of female-headed households and the higher rates of poverty, low educational outcomes, and inflated rates of child abuse that are associated with them.

Moynihan made a contemporaneous argument for programs for jobs, job programs, vocational training, and educational programs for the Black community. Modern scholars of the 21st century, including Douglas Massey, believe that this report was one of the more influential in the construction of the War on Poverty.

In 2009 historian Sam Tanenhaus wrote that Moynihan's fights with the New Left over the report were a signal that Great Society liberalism had political challengers both from the political Right and from the Left.[8]

Reception and following debate[edit]

From the time of its publication, the report has been sharply attacked by Black American and civil rights leaders as examples of white patronizing, cultural bias, or racism. At various times the report has been condemned or dismissed by the N.A.A.C.P. and other civil rights groups, and leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Critics accused Moynihan of relying on stereotypes of the Black family and Black men, implied that blacks had inferior academic performance, portrayed crime and pathology as endemic to the black community, and failed to recognize that both cultural bias and racism in standardized tests had contributed to apparent lower achievement by blacks in school.[9] The report was criticized for threatening to undermine the place of civil rights on the national agenda, leaving "a vacuum that could be filled with a politics that blamed Blacks for their own troubles."[10]

In 1987, Hortense Spillers, a Black feminist academic, criticized the Moynihan Report on semantic grounds for its use of "matriarchy" and "patriarchy" when describing the African-American family. She argues that the terminology used to define White families cannot be used to define African-American families because of the way slavery has affected the African-American family.[11]

African-American economist and writer Walter E. Williams has praised the report for its findings. He has also said, "The solutions to the major problems that confront many black people won't be found in the political arena, especially not in Washington or state capitols."[6]

Political commentator Heather MacDonald wrote for National Review in 2008, "Conservatives of all stripes routinely praise Daniel Patrick Moynihan's prescience for warning in 1965 that the breakdown of the Black family threatened the achievement of racial equality. They rightly blast those liberals who denounced Moynihan's report".[12]

Sociologist Stephen Steinberg argued in 2011 that the Moynihan report was condemned "because it threatened to derail the Black liberation movement."[10]

Attempting to divert responsibility[edit]

Main article: Blaming the victim

Psychologist William Ryan coined the phrase "blaming the victim" in his 1971 book Blaming the Victim,[13] specifically as a critique of the Moynihan report. He said it was an attempt to divert responsibility for poverty from social structural factors to the behaviors and cultural patterns of the poor.[14][15]

Feminist critique[edit]

Feminists argue the Moynihan Report presents a "male-centric" view of social problems. They believe that Moynihan failed to take into account basic rational incentives for marriage. He did not acknowledge that women had historically engaged in marriage in part out of need for material resources, as adequate wages were otherwise denied via cultural traditions excluding women from most jobs outside the home. With the expansion of welfare in the US in the mid to late 20th century, women gained better access to government resources intended to reduce family and child poverty.[16] Women also increasingly gained access to the workplace.[17] As a result, more women were able to subsist independently, at a time when men had difficulty finding work.[18][19]


Declaring Moynihan "prophetic," Ken Auletta, in his 1982 The Underclass, proclaimed that "one cannot talk about poverty in America, or about the underclass, without talking about the weakening family structure of the poor." Both the Baltimore Sun and the New York Times ran series on the black family in 1983, followed by a 1985 Newsweek article called "Moynihan: I Told You So." In 1986 CBS aired the documentary, The Vanishing Black Family, produced by Bill Moyers, a onetime aide to Lyndon Johnson. He affirmed the findings of the Moynihan report.[3]

In a 2001 interview with PBS, Moynihan said in response:

"My view is we had stumbled onto a major social change in the circumstances of post-modern society. It was not long ago in this past century that an anthropologist working in London – a very famous man at the time, Malinowski – postulated what he called the first rule of anthropology: That in all known societies, all male children have an acknowledged male parent. That's what we found out everywhere. ... And well, maybe it's not true anymore. Human societies change."[20]

By the time of this interview, rates of the number of children born to single mothers had gone up in the white and Hispanic working classes as well.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "I was Assistant Secretary for Policy Planning and Research." First Measured Century: Interview: Daniel Patrick Moynihan
  2. ^ Social DisruptionsBen Wattenberg, in The First Measured Century (PBS)
  3. ^ a b Kay S. Hymowitz, "The Black Family: 40 Years of Lies", City Journal
  4. ^ Daniel P. Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Washington, D.C., Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor, 1965.
  5. ^ a b Moynihan, Daniel. "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action". United States Department of Labor. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  6. ^ a b Walter E. Williams (18 November 2006). ""Black Progress" Through Politics?". Capitalism Magazine. 
  7. ^ S. Craig Watkins, Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema, , pp. 218–219
  8. ^ Tanenhaus, Sam (2009-09-01). The Death of Conservatism. Random House Publishing Group. pp. 71–72. ISBN 9781588369482. Retrieved 18 October 2013. 
  9. ^ Patterson, Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle Over Black Family Life From LBJ to Obama (2010).
  10. ^ a b Stephen Steinberg, "Poor Reason - Culture still doesn’t explain poverty", Boston Review, January 13, 2011.
  11. ^ Spillers, Hortense. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book", Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 64–81, via JSTOR. Web.
  12. ^ Heather MacDonald (April 14, 2008). "The Hispanic Family: The Case for National Action". National Review. Retrieved January 30, 2011. 
  13. ^ George Kent (2003). "Blaming the Victim, Globally". UN Chronicle online (United Nations Department of Public Information) XL (3). Archived from the original on Dec 24, 2003. 
  14. ^ Illinois state U. archives.
  15. ^ Ryan, William (1976). Blaming the Victim. Vintage. ISBN 0-394-72226-4. 
  16. ^ Jill Quadagno (1994). The Color of Welfare. Oxford University Press. pp. 119–120. 
  17. ^ Esping-Andersen, Gosta (2009). The Incomplete Revolution. Polity Press. pp. 20–25. 
  18. ^ Fuchs, V. (1988). Women's Quest for Economic Equality. Harvard University Press. 
  19. ^ McLanahan, S. and L. Casper, "Growing diversity and inequality in the American family", in R. Farley (ed.), State of the Union: America in the 1990s, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1995, pp. 1–45.
  20. ^ "Daniel Patrick Moynihan Interview". PBS.

Further reading[edit]

  • Geary, Daniel. Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).
  • Geary, Daniel. "Racial Liberalism, the Moynihan Report, and the Daedalus Project on 'The Negro American'," Daedalus, 140 (Winter 2011), 53–66.
  • Massey, Douglas S., and Robert J. Sampson, "Moynihan Redux: Legacies and Lessons", Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 621 (Jan. 2009), 6–27.
  • Patterson, James T. Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle Over Black Family Life From LBJ to Obama (Basic Books; 2010)
  • Wilson, William Julius, "The Moynihan Report and Research on the Black Community", Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 621 (Jan. 2009), 34–46.

External links[edit]