Moynihan and the Modern American Family at 50

By Gerard Robinson | Senior Fellow, CUNY Institute for Education Policy

“The gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening. The fundamental problem, in which this is clearly the case, is that of family structure.”

— Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1964)

“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

— Charles Darwin (1839)

In March 1965, 37-year-old U.S. Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan troubled the waters of civil dialogue with the publication of a 78-page report entitled, “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action.” It quickly became known merely as the Moynihan Report.

This progressive New Yorker articulated, for a broad American readership, discomforting facts about the black family in the 1960s: a surge in out-of-wedlock births between 1940-1963 (from 17% to 24% of all black births); a black male unemployment rate of 29 percent; and growing disparities between white-black, as well as between black female-black male academic achievement.

Of all the liabilities listed in the report, Moynihan believed the most pernicious was the growing number of households managed by (mostly) undereducated single mothers. Because this problem was associated with black families almost exclusively, federal—not state or local—action was essential to turn the tide on what Moynihan called “a new crisis in race relations.” And so the ideological war of words began.

The Moynihan Report was not the first federal inquiry into the challenges of black life; nevertheless, its findings shocked the nation. What was most striking was the culprit Moynihan identified: the weak family structure in black communities. Criticism came from different directions: on the one hand, from those who defended the structure of the black family and found the language of “pathology” offensive; on the other, from libertarians who rejected the role of government in “saving” families. [1]

Those who accepted Moynihan’s weak family thesis sought forensic evidence for the cause. Was it genetics? Physicist William Shockley had promoted this theory to explain the white-black IQ gap in the 1960s, but respected natural and social scientists invalidated Shockley’s claim. So was poverty responsible? Although black poverty was high in the 1960s, it was not obviously connected to single parenthood; many impoverished homes had two parents, or an employed parent, or an educated parent. Was it slavery’s peculiar reach from one century to the next? Although Moynihan considered slavery to have been a root cause of the problem, his interest was in solving contemporary problems, whatever their origin. His tool of choice was massive federal involvement.

This was the situation and the sentiments in 1965. Where are we now? The liability that so concerned Moynihan 50 years ago pales in comparison to the American family structure today. In 1940 the birthrate to unwed mothers of all ages and races was 3.8%; by 2013, it was 44.3%. It is true that the percentage of births to unwed mothers has leveled off from a high of 51.8% in 2007. Despite this plateau, however, the situation is far from ideal for the 71% of black children, 66% of American Indian/Alaskan Native children, 53% of Hispanic children, and 29% of white children who are being raised in single-family homes.

The Moynihan Report’s 50th anniversary has provided a backdrop for national reflection. On March 5, 2015, I chaired two panels convened by Dr. Paul Peterson at the Hoover Institution in Washington, D.C. entitled, “Single-Parent Families: Revisiting the Moynihan Report 50 Years Later.” The panels focused upon the causes and consequences of children’s living with an unmarried mother, particularly their effects on educational attainment, and participants debated the appropriate role of schools and the government in responding to these challenges. [2]

I want to focus here upon two aspects of these conversations: the call to surround families with overlapping networks of support, and the need to accept and ameliorate the underlying structural problems.

Whereas Moynihan called for new and focused federal activism, recent conversations have emphasized the role that local government and philanthropy plays in creating social capital and academic supports for disadvantaged families. As the keynote speaker U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander put it:

“The schools cannot do it all, neither can the government. [W]e must create a revival of interest in these children and their parents from traditional sources: the religious institutions, the families, and the communities of this country.”

Such a stance recognizes the historic partnerships that have existed in this country since the colonial days. Catholic and Protestant churches opened schools for children of poor and rich families alike well before Horace Mann promoted the common school model, and black church-based schools taught thousands of African Americans to read before and after the Civil War. This legacy continued into the twentieth century, with Jewish congregations in New York City, and Muslim and Arab centers of faith in Detroit, setting up societies to help immigrant families transition into American life. Today, New York City children are served by organizations as diverse as the United Way of NYC, the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, the Children’s Scholarship Fund, and Communities in Schools.

Community-based organizations play a unique role, as well. Panelist Robert Woodson, Jr. founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprises (CNE) in 1981 to help low-income urban families and children transform their community by transforming themselves through faith and free market principles. One of CNE’s successful youth mentoring programs is the Violence-Free Zone (VFZ), a public-private partnership between local churches, local public schools, and adult mentors. According to Baylor University evaluators, VFZ programs in Milwaukee, WI, and Richmond, VA, reduced behavioral and suspension rates; increased student GPAs and college going rates; and created healthier interaction between students, police, and school safety officers.

The first point, then, reminds us that the federal government plays a necessary but incomplete role in improving life chances for at-risk young students. The second point, that the underlying social structures need to be addressed as well, is not necessarily in opposition to the first. In this view, it is not sufficient to “make up for” the obstacles confronting American families but, rather, to reduce the obstacles in the first place. Brookings Institute’s Dr. Isabel Sawhill emphasized this point:

“In the meantime, children are being raised in environments marked by inadequate resources and unstable relationships. No wonder that when they get to school, children are often not ready to learn. Schools are asked to compensate for the failure of children’s first teachers—their parents.”

Dr. Sawhill believes schools play an important role in preparing students for future economic mobility. However, schools lack the human capital to provide the emotional, financial, and parental support that children need. In Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage (2014), Sawhill contends that neither spending more money for social programs nor promoting traditional marriage will automatically reduce the 1.8 million unplanned births to unwed mothers and fathers under age 30 each year. Rather, turning “drifters”—teens and adults likely to give birth to a child they are under-prepared to raise—into “planners”—adults who postpone parenthood until prepared for marriage—is a more promising, and realistic, approach. Our education system should play a role in the drifter-to-planner journey.

A variation on this theme is that adult education comprises a key part of the solution:

“Confronting poverty and inequality in the inner city requires that we recognize the complex interrelated problems based in poor families. This necessitates an effective, sustained, and coordinated mission of government-funded institutions to support opportunity for economic self-sufficiency among the poor, which has yet to be realized.”

Dr. Julius Wilson believes providing impoverished urban families with workforce skills to lift them out of poverty require significant federal investments. These investments commence before a child’s birth, meaning access to comprehensive prenatal care, and into pre-school through adulthood. This harmonized approach aims to improve the lives of families, in part, by improving the wellbeing of men, particularly black men living in inner cities. A case he makes in When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (1996) and “Black Men and the Struggle for Work” (2015).

The viewpoints represented above do not necessarily contradict one another. Although discussants disagree about the appropriate level of public and private action required to address family structures, or what we can realistically expect from our schools in the process, they agree with two things: schools and the government cannot afford to do nothing, nor can we accomplish our mission without recourse to the assets of families, belief traditions, institutional collaborations, and individual tenacity.

In conclusion, we are living in a modern Moynihan moment. We are not short of suggestions on how to bolster the American family and, in particular, its educational options. I offer two suggestions based upon my experience working with nonprofit and state government organizations that support families and children.

First, invest in programs that empower and support parents. There are many such examples. The Open Society’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement awarded a $300,000 grant to the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) in 2009 to create the Parents, Power, Purpose (P3) Initiative. More than 2,000 parents in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and four cities in Louisiana (New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, and Lake Charles) participated in P3 institutes. Parents learned how to advocate for boys placed in special education, and for educational improvement for boys in general. A program of this type could be geared to all boys, regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, as well as to girls.

The effects of strong parental involvement are significant. In 2013, William H. Jeynes’s meta-analysis of 51 studies of Pre-K-12 school-based programs found that parental involvement is associated with higher student achievement. These findings corroborated the author’s 2005 evaluation of 77 studies that found parental involvement improved students’ standardized test scores and grades. As for race and ethnicity: “The effects of parental involvement tended to be larger for African American and Latino children than they were for Asian American children. However, the effect sizes were statistically significant for all three of these minority groups. The results highlight the consistency of the impact of parental involvement across racial and ethnic groups.” A smaller study (2010) of 158 seven-year-olds, their mothers, and teachers found that parent involvement positively influenced a child’s cognitive competencies as well as student-teacher relationships. [3]

Second, conduct needs assessment surveys in high poverty, low-achievement zip codes with a goal to micro-target afterschool services to families and children – just as political campaigns target those households for votes. According to research sponsored by the Afterschool Alliances, 11.3 million youth are unsupervised between 3:00-6:00 p.m. This is prime time to replace involvement in unhealthy activities with involvement in afterschool learning opportunities. In 2015, Dollar General Afterschool Literacy Award recognized an Atlanta-based program for its success in improving the English literacy skills of refugee parents and their children. In 2014, Mozilla partnered with the Afterschool Alliance to build students’ web making and digital literacy skills. In 2012, Girls Inc. Eureka! partnered with the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) in Albany, N.Y. to host a 5-year program to prepare young women for careers and postsecondary options in STEM.[4]

Philanthropists are drawn to support these programs for a reason: a meta-analysis of 68 studies of quality afterschool programs showed that participating students improved their social and personal skills. In one particular city, Los Angeles, an evaluation of 28,000 students in L.A.’s BEST afterschool program found similar results. Regarding academic achievement, the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)’s meta-analysis of 35 afterschool programs that targeted K-12 students in need of assistance found improvements in reading and math achievement. Strong afterschool programs are particularly important to low-income children; an Urban Institute evaluation of the B.E.L.L. summer learning program in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C. found improved reading skills compared to nonparticipants. [5]

Research supports the positive impact of parental involvement and quality afterschool programs upon students’ academic work. Such models exist; they merely need to be funded and replicated. These are areas into which social entrepreneurs could move to great effect.

As we design public policies for our modern families, our children must not become collateral in partisan-orchestrated family feuds, literally and figuratively. Our children are bigger than politics and brighter than sound bites. They also have destinies that zip codes should not constrain. An amended phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” illustrates my point: Let us not judge our students by their family structure, but by the content of their academic tenaciousness. Government, business, faith-based institutions, nonprofit organizations, schools, and people of good will can do this. To achieve this goal, we must acknowledge that our charge in 2015 is to work with the families we have—not with the families we want, wish for, or invented 50 years ago.



[1] Writers working for the New Deal era Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration Studies published reports about Negro life during slavery, emancipation, and in post-WWI cities and rural enclaves between 1935-1943. The report was the first federal examination of the relationship between civil rights and the general welfare of the nation. President Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights addressed this theme in a milestone report entitled “To Secure These Rights” published in October 1947.;; and

[2] Hoover Institution:; and Education Next (Spring 2015):

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Comments on this Post

  1. Gerard;
    I agree that a multi prong attack on the current status of black achievement is required. I also believe however we can not accept all the blame for our predicament. 400 years of oppression has an impact. Image for a moment if after the Civil War the reconstruction effort of the federal government was not curtailed. What if the Jim Crow era of suppression and violence was not aquiesed to. What if black were actually welcomed and included in the economy of America as it has grown. We would not be in this position.
    So today we are faced with a political and economic system that has institutionalized white male supremacy and white privilege. This fact is the chief hindrance to more broad based prosperity for all poor people and especially black people. All the self help we generate will continue to have limited success until we can confront, push back and neutralize the notion of white mail superiority. I think we continue on the pathways you suggest but we also need collective minds to strategize on undermining white male superiority and white privilege to fully open tne doors of opportunity for all,

  2. Gerard,

    Very well done!!

    I agree that the most powerful lever in academic achievement is the Parent(s). However, I’m much more radical in my support of initiatives that look to change the “Culture of Parenting” in these zip codes and in the country more broadly.

    It’s important but not nearly enough to provide remedial services to a poor “parenting culture” as the academic and economic returns of most of these services are fleeting. We need a “Tiger Mom” like culture to take root in the black community especially. Both the explicit and implicit signals of a healthy parenting culture impart a deeper hardcoding on a child. And by parenting culture, I don’t just mean the biological parent(s) I mean the adults that nuture the child’s personal development and not just the academic performance.

    In the end, a program primarily set on academic achievement is fool’s gold. These kids need passionate and deep character development coupled with active play, community and learning. Only a culture of parenting can address the “whole person” needs of many of these kids. To that extent, gov’t is truly limited. And perhaps, too many non-profits are limited by merely aping a pure academic delivery model.

    Just a thought… but your essay is the much needed provocation to expand our imagination and use of data to go deeper than just reading, writing and arithmetic.


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