Racial Controversies Are As Misleading Today As They Were When The Moynihan Report Was Written

In its Spring issue, Education Next takes note of the 50th anniversary of a 1965 publication issued by the U. S. Department of Labor entitled “The Negro Family.” The report, assembled under the direction of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, made the case that civil rights legislation needed to be only the first step toward emancipation of black Americans from the legacies of the past. The next step should address the fact that approximately 25 percent of black children were being raised in single-parent families.

In the opening to Ednext’s Spring issue, James Patterson reviews the intense controversy that surrounded the original Moynihan report. Many accused Moynihan—of all people!—of racial bias for raising a topic many preferred to ignore. The thoughtful, far-sighted, future Senator from the State of New York, perhaps the last truly bipartisan member of the U. S. Senate, never quite got over the barrage of false charges, slurs and innuendos he endured.

It is a perhaps a sign of the times that a smaller version of this controversy has now bubbled up around Ednext’s Spring issue. Some have objected to its cover, which makes compelling use of the iconic Grant Wood painting, American Gothic, to highlight the spread of the social reality that concerned Moynihan by displaying an African American mother and child with a ghosted, absent father. For some, the family should have been white, or Hispanic, or inter-racial, or anything other than African American.

Of course, it is true that single parenthood is not the prerogative of any one racial group, as readers of the articles in the Spring issue will quickly learn. And it is true that single parenthood seems to be equally bad for children of all racial groups. But it would be disrespectful of Moynihan’s original contribution to illustrate a reconsideration of the report entitled “The Negro Family” on its 50th anniversary with a portrait of a family from another racial background.

For those who wish to focus on the substance of the problem, there is much to learn from both reading the path-breaking articles in this issue and attending tomorrow—either in person or online—the discussion that is taking place beginning at 12:15 PM at the Washington D. C. offices of the Hoover Institution.

In a powerful summary article, Sara McClanahan and Christopher Jencks tell us that today 40 percent of the families who are headed by a single mother earn incomes that leave them below the poverty line, while only 8 percent of dual-parent families are in a similar predicament. Drawing upon 45 experimental studies, they find that children raised in single-parent families are less likely to graduate from high school and are less likely to be employed. They are at greater risk of delinquency, illegal drug use and engaging in aggressive behavior. Their divorce rate and non-marital birth rate is higher.

The scholars find that boys are at greater risk than girls but that the risks are no different for blacks than they are for whites.

Unfortunately, the incidence of single parenthood has increased dramatically in the intervening 50 years since the Moynihan report was released. No less than 24 percent of all American children are living with a single mother, a percentage that is roughly the same as it was for the black community at the time Moynihan wrote his report. (By racial group, the percentages break out as follows: 19 % of white children, 28% of Hispanic children and 50% of black children.)

In my own essay, I point out that single parenthood over the past 20 years is rising more steeply upward for whites and Hispanics than it is for black Americans. Indeed, the trend in single parenthood among African Americans peaked out around the time the Clinton Administration passed a welfare reform law that, together with the Earned Income Tax Credit, sharply reduced the tax penalty on marriage among low-income families.

Still half of all black children live in single-parent families. William Julius Wilson and his co-authors attribute the severity of the problem to high rates of black incarceration, unemployment and social isolation in highly disadvantaged communities. But Isabel Sawhill attributes the growth in single parenthood to broader societal trends.

Other essays look at impacts of single-parent families on college graduation rates, compare trends in the United States with those in other industrial societies, and propose better ways of encouraging stable family formation and addressing the needs of children.

Taken altogether, the essays make a powerful case that the social reality of concern to Moynihan is one that the country still needs to address.

– Paul E. Peterson

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