Behind the Headline: When Liberals Blew It

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When Liberals Blew It
3/12/15 | New York Times

Behind the Headline
Was Moynihan Right?
Spring 2015 | Education Next

In his New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof argues that Democrats made a historic mistake fifty years ago when they distanced themselves from the Moynihan Report. The report examined how slavery and discrimination had contributed to family breakdown among African-American families, and predicted that the the rise of single-parent families would worsen poverty.

Reaction to the report was so charged that it caused scholars to avoid studying the connections between family structure and poverty for many years for fear of being labeled racist. However, Kristof writes

Moynihan was absolutely right to emphasize the consequences for low-income children of changing family structure. Partly because there is often only one income coming into a single-parent household, children of unmarried moms are roughly five times as likely to live in poverty as children of married couples.

Causation is difficult to tease from correlation. But efforts to do that suggest that growing up with just one biological parent reduces the chance that a child will graduate from high school by 40 percent, according to an essay by Sara McLanahan of Princeton and Christopher Jencks of Harvard. They point to the likely mechanism: “A father’s absence increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule-breaking, delinquency and illegal drug use.” These effects are greater on boys than on girls.

Kristof goes on to consider policies that could help turn things around. He concludes “A starting point is to acknowledge the role of families in fighting poverty.”

The study by Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks cited by Kristof appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Education Next: “Was Moynihan Right? What happens to children of unmarried mothers.

More articles on this topic can be found in the Spring 2015 issue of Education Next, which revisits the Moynihan Report on its 50th anniversary.

-Education Next

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