This spring will mark the 50th anniversary of the first serious effort on the part of social scientists to analyze and evaluate the collapse of the traditional family in American society. In 1965, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (NY), who was then working as an assistant Secretary of Labor, wrote a report on the dissolution of black families in America. That report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” was both groundbreaking and enormously controversial. Fifty years later, the study remains groundbreaking, although its conclusions are, sadly, no longer especially controversial, having been corroborated by endless data spanning decades and extending to every race, culture and creed in the nation. At some point, the rescue of the American family will either become a serious and urgent focus of societal action or it will prove the undoing of the great American experiment.
Among other things, Moynihan noted in his report the existence and the pervasiveness of black poverty and the correlation between that poverty and the breakdown of the black nuclear family. In an attempt to explain why black economic advancement lagged both political advancement and the economic fortunes of other ethnic groups, Moynihan examined countless reams of data and endless studies of black family life. And what he found – a paradox which came to be known as “Moynihan’s Scissors” – was that welfare and male unemployment in the black community no longer appeared to be nearly-perfectly correlated, as they were in other populations and as they had always been in the past.
As it turned out, male unemployment was diverging from welfare outlays because the family was breaking down. Welfare made it possible for women, primarily black women, to survive and raise their children without said children’s father present in the home. In turn, the absence of the father from the home became necessary for the collection of welfare. A vicious circle had been created, and it was exacerbating black poverty tremendously.
Although Moynihan was accused of “blaming the victim” and attempting to shift responsibility for black poverty away from racism and to that which he called the “pathologies” of ghetto culture, time eventually proved his research and conclusions to be essentially accurate. By the mid-1980s, the data conclusively confirmed his assertions and his predictions, both with respect to demographics and poverty statistics. The dissolution of the black family and the causal link between family cohesion and income had essentially fostered a permanent black underclass that was poor, was poorly educated, was subjected to the myriad pathologies consistent with pervasive poverty and fatherlessness in children, and which had little hope of breaking this toxic cycle of poverty and family breakdown.
Perhaps just as troubling is the fact that in the three-plus decades since Moynihan’s warnings came to fruition, the plague of family breakdown and persistent poverty has shed its racial dimensions, becoming a severe and interminable pattern across race lines. In 2013, the Urban Institute (“UI”) released a study called “The Moynihan Report Revisited,” which not only documented the ongoing turmoil in the black community but also noted the spread of the broken-family underclass.
We should note here that the UI report was published roughly a year after Charles Murray’s landmark book Coming Apart, the State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray, for the record, is one of the finest, most creative, and most rigorous and thorough social scientists working today. He is also a pariah among the intellectual crowd for having had the gall to report honestly his findings with respect to race, poverty and intelligence. In any case, Murray demonstrated rather conclusively in his book that the black family was indeed the proverbial canary in the coal mine and that what had happened to black working-class families by the 1960s had also happened to white working-class families, only at something of a time lag. Specifically, Murray put it this way:
In 1960, extremely high proportions of whites ages 30–49 in both Belmont and Fishtown were married — 94 percent in Belmont and 84 percent in Fishtown. The unquestioned norm in both neighborhoods was marriage. In the 1970s, those percentages declined about equally in Belmont and Fishtown. Then came the great divergence. In Belmont, marriage among prime-age adults stabilized during the mid-1980s and remained flat thereafter, standing at 83 percent in 2010. In Fishtown, marriage continued a slide that had not slackened as of 2010, when the percentage of married whites ages 30–49 had fallen to a minority of 48 percent. What had been a 10 percentage point difference between Belmont and Fishtown in the 1960s stood at 35 percentage points in 2010. The culprits — divorce and failure to marry in the first place — split responsibility for the divergence about equally.
Another aspect of marriage showed just as great a divergence: the percentage of children born to unmarried women. Frightened though politicians and media eminences are to say so, nonmarital births are problematic. Children who are born to unmarried women fare worse than the children of divorce and far worse than children raised in intact families even after controlling for the income and education of the parents. The technical literature on that topic is large and damning. The literature on what happens when large proportions of children within a neighborhood are born to unmarried women is less extensive, but the coincidence between that phenomenon and communities that have fallen apart, whether they be in the inner city or rural America, suggests that a large proportion of nonmarital births within a community constitutes a social catastrophe.
In 1960, just 2 percent of all white births were nonmarital. When the Vital Statistics first gave us the mother’s education in 1970, 6 percent of births to white women with no more than a high school education — women with a Fishtown education — were out of wedlock. Or to put it another way, 94 percent of such births were within marriage. By 2008, 44 percent were nonmarital. Among the college-educated women of Belmont, less than 6 percent of all births were out of wedlock as of 2008, up from 1 percent in 1970.
By 2010, in other words, the phenomenon that was first noticed as the tragedy of the black family had fully become the tragedy of the working class. Now, we have neither the time nor the space to discuss what this means to the working class or to the country more broadly. Nor can we offer much by way of solutions. But note that the damage done here is real – both in human terms and in terms of societal impact. In a recent analysis – also penned in commemoration of Senator Moynihan’s breakthrough work – Sara McLanahan of Princeton and Christopher Jencks of Harvard noted that the effects of single-parenthood are most pronounced on children and tend to promote dangerous and misguided behaviors that, as Moynihan warned, perpetuate the vicious cycle.
The fact that single motherhood is increasing faster among women with less than a college degree means that children growing up with a single mother are likely to be doubly disadvantaged. They spend less time and receive less money from their biological fathers than children who live with their fathers. At the same time, the primary breadwinner in the family—the mother—has lower earnings than the typical mother in a married-parent family. The official poverty rate in 2013 among all families with children was 40 percent if the family was headed by an unmarried mother and only 8 percent if the family was headed by a married couple….
High levels of instability and complexity have important consequences for children’s home environment and the quality of the parenting they receive. Both the departure of a father and the arrival of a mother’s new partner disrupt family routines and are stressful for most children, regardless of whether the father is married to their mother or merely cohabiting with her. A nonresident father may also be less willing to keep paying child support if he believes his payments will be shared with another man’s child. Such problems are magnified in families with several nonresident fathers….
Growing up with only one biological parent reduces a child’s chances of graduating from high school by about 40 percent, which is similar to the effect of having a mother who did not finish high school rather than one who did. The absence of one’s biological father has not been shown to affect a child’s verbal and math test scores, however. The evidence for other indicators of educational performance, such as high school grades, skipping school, and college aspirations, is mixed, with some studies finding that father absence lowers school attendance and aspirations and others finding no effect. Most studies find larger effects on boys than on girls.
How might we reconcile the fact that a father’s absence affects high school graduation with the lack of evidence that it affects test scores? The answer appears to be that a father’s absence increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule breaking, delinquency, and illegal drug use. These antisocial behaviors affect high school completion independent of a child’s verbal and math scores….
There is consistent evidence that a father’s absence reduces a child’s chances of employment, but the evidence on whether it affects the earnings of those who do find work is inconclusive. Similarly, there is solid evidence that absence of a father during childhood increases the chances that a child will divorce as an adult and that a daughter will have a nonmarital birth.
McLanahan and Jencks argue that the key to breaking this cycle is to encourage working-class women and girls to postpone having children until they have found an appropriate life partner. That makes intuitive sense, naturally. But it is also far easier said than done. As Charles Murray noted in his book, the factors that contribute to premature fertility in working class women are not easily fixed. Given the lack of educational attainment, the concomitant decrease in spirituality and respect for work, and the slow but steady disappearance of working-class jobs, more and more men in the erstwhile “working” class consider themselves poor providers and are thus refusing to marry. Meanwhile, more and more women also consider these men poor providers and are refusing to marry them.
All of this taken in conjunction suggests that persistent, damaging and self-perpetuating poverty in this country is a complicated and multifaceted problem that cannot be solved quickly. More to the point, it suggests that the problem is a product of American culture. By extension, the solution to the problem would appear obvious, to reinvigorate the cultural values that once dominated the country and once fostered a more stable and more beneficial family life, including, but not limited to: respect for the value of work, religious practice, the importance of high-quality and effective education, respect for the tradition of marriage, and a willingness to delay emotional and physical gratification.
Of course, it has now been more than six decades since William F. Buckley noted in God and Man at Yale that the country’s educational and cultural elites had already abandoned most of those values and sought to inculcate subsequent generations in the irrelevance of tradition. All of which is to say that restoring the culture and thus restoring this country’s promise will take not just a great deal of time, but a great deal of work as well.