The Negro Family: The Case For National Action - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (the 1965 Moynihan Report) was written by Assistant Secretary of Labor[1]Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sociologist and later U.S. Senator. It focused on the deep roots of black poverty in America and concluded controversially that the relative absence of nuclear families (those having both a father and mother present) would greatly hinder further progress toward economic and political equality.

Moynihan argued that the rise in single-mother families was not due to a lack of jobs but rather to a destructive vein in ghetto culture that could be traced back to slavery and Jim Crow discrimination. Though black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier had already introduced the idea in the 1930s, Moynihan's argument defied conventional social-science wisdom. 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."


While "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action" was being written, Moynihan was employed at the U.S. Department of Labor. While analyzing various statistics concerning black poverty he 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 wrote, in 1965, on the coming destruction of the black family, the out-of-wedlock birthrate was 25 percent among blacks.[4]


According to the book Representing: Hip hop culture and the production of black cinema by S. Craig Watkins:

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. (pp. 218–219)

Moynihan generally concluded in the report: "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".[5]

The Contents of the Moynihan Report, 1965, was given to the United States Department of Labor by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, hence the name of the report. In the introduction of his report, Moynihan states that "the gap between the Negro and most other groups in American society is widening."[6] He also states that due to the failure of the family structure in the lower class that the gap between possibilities for Negroes and other groups will persist in being in-equal, and in favor of other groups. This was based on the continued existence of racism within society, despite the victory that Negroes had won within the context of Civil Rights.[7]


The Moynihan Report has had long-lasting and important implications. Writing to President Lyndon Johnson, then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Patrick 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, 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 high rates of poverty, low educational outcomes, and inflated rates of abuse that are associated with them.

Moynihan made a compelling contemporary argument for the provision of jobs, job programs, vocational training, and educational programs for the Black community. Modern scholars, including Douglas Massey, now consider the report one of the more influential in the construction of the War on Poverty.

Sam Tanenhaus wrote that Moynihan's fights with the New Left over the report were a signal that Great Society liberalism now had political challengers both from the 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 even racism. The report has, at various times, been condemned or dismissed by the N.A.A.C.P., Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton. Among the complaints lodged at the "Moynihan Report" are the stereotyping of the black family and black men, inferences of inferior academic performance by Black-Americans, portrayals of endemic crime and "pathology" in the black community, and a failure to recognize both cultural bias and racism in standardized tests.[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, scholar Hortense Spillers used the Moynihan Report as an starting point in her essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." In the essay, Spillers criticizes the Moynihan Report 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 impacted the African-American family. She goes through the history of Africans in America, starting with the first time European and African met, and tracing the history of the slave trade. She argues that a slave is divested of his or her gender and becomes nothing more than a body. This also divests the slave of his or her name, lineage, and means the slave family can be broken at any moment. Due to this loss, the idea of patriarchy no longer applies to the African-American family because patriarchy is defined by the ability to pass down a family name through the line of men. Motherhood becomes a means of reinforcing and reproducing the slavery system and the father disappears entirely. Due to this loss of gender identity and the severing of mother and child, Spillers says that the female slave is in a category of her own, outside of what we think of as traditional female gendering. Therefore, we cannot define the African-American family as a matriarchy either, such as the Moynihan Report does.[11]

African-American economist and writer Walter E. Williams has praised the report for its findings. He has also added in response, "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."[5]

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 explained in 2011, that the Moynihan report was condemned "because it threatened to derail the black liberation movement."[10]

View that Moynihan was attempting to divert responsibility[edit]

Psychologist William Ryan coined the phrase "blaming the victim" in his 1971 classic 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. A central concern is that Moynihan did not consider basic rational incentives for marriage; he did not account for the possibility that women had historically engaged in marriage in part out of need for material resources, such as adequate wages, otherwise denied via cultural traditions excluding women from most jobs outside the home. With the social revolution of the mid-1900s, women gained better access to government resources meant to ease family and child poverty.[16] Women also increasingly gained access to the workplace.[17] One result of these social changes was that more women were able to subsist independently.[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" and a 1986 CBS documentary, The Vanishing Black Family, produced by Bill Moyers, a onetime aide to Lyndon Johnson, who had supported the Moynihan report.[20]

Moynihan responded to criticism in a 2001 interview with PBS, where he said: "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."[21]

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. ^The Black Family: 40 Years of Lies -Kay S. Hymowitz
  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. ^ abWalter E. Williams (18 November 2006). ""Black Progress" Through Politics?". Capitalism Magazine. 
  6. ^Moynihan, Daniel. "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action". United States Department of Labor. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  7. ^Moynihan, Daniel. "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action". United States Department of Labor. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  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. ^ abStephen 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. 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. ^The Black Family: 40 Years of Lies – Kay S. Hymowitz in City Journal
  21. ^"Daniel Patrick Moynihan Interview". PBS.

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