Forty Years Wandering
John F. Kippley on Moynihan’s Warning & Our Long Failure to Heed It
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” In what came to be called The Moynihan Report, the future senator, then a staffer in Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor, described the black illegitimacy rate as a key factor in the social problems of the poor black family.
He thus drew the ire of other social scientists who dismissed illegitimacy as a social concern and raised the hackles of those who feared a Big Brother government controlling the sexual activities of black people on welfare. He also raised the fears of those who believed that the sexual behavior of mutually consenting legal adults is of no interest to the public and who realized that any concern with illegitimacy among black people would lead to a concern with the public consequences of other people’s sexual behavior.
Moynihan wrote for a small audience of high-level-policymakers (only 100 copies were printed), and he never intended the Report for general distribution. However, President Johnson referred to it in a commencement address at Howard University on June 4, 1965, and called for a White House conference on the plight of the black family later that year, and so the Report was published by late July. Between its publication and the start of the conference in mid-November, Moynihan and his concerns about illegitimacy rates were so pilloried that at a planning meeting in New York on November 9, the question of family stability was stricken from the agenda.
In his Report, Moynihan said all the standard things about low wages, poor education, the heritage of matriarchy imposed by American slavery, the need for more jobs, and the need for the government to help the economically and socially disadvantaged black man to advance to middle-class status. But he did not stop there. He also pointed to rates of illegitimacy and to fatherless families as important negative factors in black culture, and he made plain his thesis that “at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.”
What were the rates that so concerned Moynihan? According to the 1963 figures then available, the black illegitimacy rate was 23.6 percent and the rate of fatherless families was almost 25 percent, and Moynihan believed there was a connection. Both black and white illegitimacy rates had risen from 1940 to 1963, the white rate from 2.0 percent to 3.07 percent and the black rate from 16.8 percent to 23.6 percent. In his Report, a half-page illustration was labeled in all caps, “The Nonwhite Illegitimacy Ratio Is 8 Times the White Ratio,” a good case of what he would not have done if he had intended the Report for general publication.
The result of the controversy was that his major thesis—that black cultural acceptance of illegitimacy and fatherless families was making life more difficult for blacks themselves—never made it to the White House Conference on the Black Family, where the talk was confined to jobs, education, and welfare.
The Report carried no recommendations, but it contained sufficient references to population issues to infer that part of the recommended “National Action” would be to encourage black people to have fewer children. “One index [explaining why middle-class blacks do well] is that middle-class Negroes have even fewer children than middle-class whites, indicating a desire to conserve the advances they have made and to insure that their children do as well or better.” Some of the critics of the Report saw enough about population in it to fear an effort at black quasi-genocide.
Government policy was set by default by an unhappy combination of Supreme Court decisions and tax-supported birth-control programs. President Johnson’s brief mention of population in his State of the Union message in January 1964 had been sufficient to stimulate would-be federal birth-control planners to start pushing.
They had a problem, however. Some states still had the remnants of nineteenth-century Comstock laws forbidding the distribution, sale, and use of contraceptive devices. Not to worry. The head of Planned Parenthood in New Haven, Connecticut, Estelle Griswold, had already filed suit against Connecticut, and on June 7 the Supreme Court ruled that laws against the use of contraceptives by married couples were unconstitutional.
Finding nothing specific in the Constitution against such laws, the Court invented its doctrine of the “penumbra” of the Fourteenth Amendment, which would have even more catastrophic effects eight years later in the Roe v. Wade decision. In 1970, Congress passed Title X to fund the distribution of contraceptives to all takers. In 1972, the Court ruled further in Baird v. Eisenstadt that laws against the sale of contraceptives to the unmarried were also unconstitutional. A year later, in Roe v. Wade, the Court struck down all state laws protecting pre-born human life.
Those in 1965 who sought to give a black underclass all the birth control that upper-class whites had been using—and for free!—thinking that it would solve the problems of illegitimacy, could scarcely have thought that their dreams would come true in less than five years. Nor could they have envisioned that easy access to abortion would be added to the birth control arsenal in less than a decade. But what they really could not have dreamed was that the effects of these “benefits” would be the opposite of what they had planned.
The Statistical Abstract of the United States tells the story. From 26.3 percent in 1965, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births to black mothers grew steadily: to 38 percent in 1970, 55 percent in 1980, 67 percent in 1990, and 69 percent in 2000. The white illegitimacy rate also rose dramatically. From a base of 4.0 in 1965, it grew to 6 percent in 1970, almost doubled to 11 percent in 1980, rose to 17 percent in 1990, and in 2000 reached 27 percent, higher than the black illegitimacy rate that concerned Moynihan in 1965. These figures include all social and economic classes. Friends at a pregnancy help center in Cincinnati’s black ghetto tell me that the illegitimacy rate in that area is at least 80 percent and may well be above the 90 percent level.
How did a contraceptively oriented sexual revolution result in more out-of-wedlock pregnancies, births, and abortions? As W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out in “The Facts of Life and Marriage” in the January/February 2005 issue of Touchstone, the sexual revolution changed the meaning of sex from a “marriage act” to a “recreational act” regardless of marital status. The number of people having sex outside of marriage increased enormously, and every form of birth control has its own rate of surprise pregnancies even if used (1) properly and (2) all the time.
Moynihan would be very concerned at these rates, for he was convinced that the deterioration of the black family was at the heart of the deterioration of black culture. In 1965, he was a man before his time simply because he recognized the great importance of the family as the basic unit of society. Today, he would have lots of company.
Black comedian Bill Cosby, an icon of the entertainment world, surprised those gathered in Washington’s Constitution Hall to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 2004, by blaming blacks for causing many of their own problems. He shocked the leadership of the NAACP by pointing to the failure of black parents to take responsibility for their own situation, to teach their children how to speak English, and to keep them from crime.
Despite criticism, Cosby renewed the self-critical analysis on July 1 at the 33rd Annual Rainbow/PUSH Coalition conference in Chicago. Responding to accusations that he was airing the dirty laundry in public, he retorted, “Let me tell you something. Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day. It’s cursing and calling each other ‘nigger’ as they’re walking down the street.”
Contrary to the sociologists of Moynihan’s day, who didn’t think sexual practices were important, Cosby zeroed in on sex. “These young girls have no business having sex. . . . Our little nine-year-old boys [are] having erections and acting out what they see and hear on some CD. They’re acting that out and they don’t know the damage that they are doing when they rape some little girl nine years old and what they have done to her whole life. It’s time to stop!”
If there had been a 2004 Cosby in the conference in early November 1965, the instability of the black family would have been discussed, not erased from the agenda.
Sex has social consequences. We know that now (and some people always did), after forty years of acting as if it did not. The current de facto public policy is that the sexual behavior of mutually consenting legal adults is of no interest to the public, and such an ostrich-like policy flies in the face of reality. As Wilcox pointed out, eminent social scientists now recognize the disastrous social effects of the sexual revolution.
The forty years since the ill-fated Moynihan Report have shown beyond any reasonable doubt that sexual practice is a matter of social justice, not just private morality. To the skeptic, I offer this challenge. Imagine what society would be like if every person practiced traditional Christian morality, or tried to, and public policy encouraged them.
Fatherless homes would be much rarer. The out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate would be low. Most children would be raised by the same two parents. The social programs designed to help poor blacks get out of the ghetto (programs designed to support the family) would work, the ghetto would be history, and the jails would be less than half full. Welfare spending would be only a fraction of what it is today. Academic achievement, especially for boys, would be higher. Adolescent emotional and psychiatric problems would be reduced. Men would live longer, drink less, and volunteer more. Women would be safer and happier. Married couples would have more children. The world would still be fallen, but some of the consequences of sin would be avoided.
The challenge is to find a way to re-establish a widespread consensus that sexual intercourse is exclusively a marital act. Because this is the biblical teaching, any effort to reintroduce this concept into public education will meet the parrot-like recitation of “separation of church and state,” but the fact that the Bible contains the natural moral law should not mean that public education must exclude its commonsense teachings.
The biblical tradition can be summed up in seventeen words: “Sexual intercourse is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant.” It can also be stated in secular terms: “Sexual intercourse ought to symbolize the self-giving commitment of marriage, which must be exclusive, permanent, and fruitful.”
Like Moynihan, I do not have specific proposals to offer. However, of two things I am sure. First, to stop the deterioration of Western culture, men and women of all ages have to experience a renewed conviction that sexual intercourse is an act pregnant with meaning, not just an act of affection and/or sexual release, and that it ought to be truly and exclusively an act that deepens and strengthens an already existing public commitment whose consequences (from children to caring for a dying spouse) the couple have accepted.
Second, in order to have marriages of fruitfulness and peace—the sort of marriages that form the bedrock of society—married couples need to believe that the marriage act really ought to be a true marriage act, a way of renewing the love, trust, and commitment of their original marriage covenant for better or for worse. They must, in other words, be open to life, at least in the sense of not being deliberately closed to life.
Some 75 years ago, the pundit Walter Lippmann reviewed in A Preface to Morals the theories of the moral revisionists who advocated contraceptive, serial, “companionate” marriage. With uncommon perspicuity he noted that “in the discussion which has ensued since birth control became generally feasible, the central confusion has been that the reformers have tried to fix their sexual ideals in accordance with the logic of birth control instead of the logic of human nature.” That is still the case today.
For forty years, the American way has been to address the problems of illegitimacy by providing free birth control, to address unhappy marriages with no-fault divorce, fatherless homes with welfare, and unwanted babies with abortion. This has not worked, as all the statistics show. It has only aggravated the problems for both blacks and whites.
American policy makers, parents, and churchmen need to clarify what they want to see forty years from now. They do not need divine foresight, because they have the 20/20 vision of hindsight. They can learn from the mistakes of the past 75 years and especially from those of the last 40. This time they need to plan in accord with the logic of human nature. They need to resuscitate the old language of chastity, modesty, self-mastery, and the permanence of marriage, and they need to walk the talk.
Kippley recommends Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey’s The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy (1967) for a description of the report and the controversy.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“Forty Years Wandering” first appeared in the May 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.