BOOK REVIEW: Influence of a landmark document

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FREEDOM IS NOT ENOUGH: THE MOYNIHAN REPORT AND AMERICA’S STRUGGLE OVER BLACK FAMILY LIFE
By James T. Patterson
Basic, $26.95, 288 pages
Reviewed by Claire Gillen

“On June 4, 1965,” James T. Patterson writes, “President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a commencement address at Howard University in which he outlined to a throng of some 5,000 people the most far-reaching civil rights agenda in modern U.S. history.” In order that black Americans enjoy “not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and a result,” Johnson declared, Americans must realize that “freedom is not enough.”

Mr. Patterson, Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University, uses this striking phrase as the title of his new book “Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle Over Black Family Life From LBJ to Obama.” In a sympathetic but evenhanded portrayal, he traces the origins and influence of the document popularly known as the Moynihan Report after its late author Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor.

Mr. Patterson begins with Moynihan and the scholarly and cultural context of his famous report, discusses the document’s reception and influence and engages the report’s relation to current trends - from Bill Cosby’s blunt warnings to President Obama’s calls for greater responsibility on the part of black parents.

Moynihan’s report, titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” did not bear his name when first printed in March 1965 by the Office of Policy Planning and Research. Originally intended as an internal report, it was released in full after portions were leaked to the press.

Coming in the wake of the August 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, the release of the report’s contents sparked a maelstrom of speculation and controversy as black leaders and civil rights activists disputed Moynihan’s dark portrait of the disintegration of the black inner-city family. Relying on Moynihan’s use of the term “pathology,” critics accused him of racism and of describing blacks as defective.

The author, however, appeals to the report’s text, emphasizing that Moynihan distinguished carefully between (in Mr. Patterson’s paraphrase) “a subset of low-income families in ‘urban ghettos’ ” and “the considerably larger number of blacks who lived in the countryside or in a relatively stable working-class or middle-class neighborhoods.” Moreover, though Moynihan exercised his penchant for dramatic language in an effort to influence LBJ’s policies, he attributed the black family’s plight to “systemic forces,” particularly “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment.”

Mr. Patterson attributes Moynihan’s concern for the “matriarchal pattern” of urban black families in part to his own experience in a fatherless household. Moynihan’s personal experiences affected him deeply, leading him to tell one interviewer, “I’ve lived much of my life in a jungle of broken families, watching them tear out each other’s minds, watching them feast on each other’s hearts.”

Though critics accused Moynihan of misogynist attitudes, Mr. Patterson points out that Moynihan was a “committed liberal” whose critique of female-headed households was firmly grounded in economic and sociological evidence. Fatherless households are consistently at a disadvantage in economic terms, and the children of broken homes consistently have lower IQ scores and grades and higher dropout rates. Likewise, illegitimate birth rates for blacks were 8 times higher than for whites in 1963, while the children of unmarried mothers are typically subject to higher infant death rates, lower birth weights and a lower general quality of health than the children of intact families.

Moynihan constantly searched for economic solutions, particularly for the high unemployment rates for black males, which were more than double those for white males. At one point, he proposed various public jobs that presumably would provide more opportunities to black men, including opening up military service and reinstituting twice-a-day mail delivery.

Throughout “Freedom Is Not Enough,” Mr. Patterson highlights Moynihan’s passion for helping develop intact, stable families. Describing Moynihan’s unease concerning the primary existing program, Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), a New Deal program, Mr. Patterson writes, “It was indeed a poorly funded, politically embattled program that fell far short of covering all needy mothers and their children, and that in most states provided aid only to impoverished female-headed families - many of them black. A great many low-income two-parent families, no matter their extent of need, were ineligible for the assistance. For this reason, Moynihan and others wondered if the program, in effect penalizing marriage, offered perverse incentives.”

During the Nixon administration, Moynihan hoped guaranteed-income programs would help families. When experimental data about such programs appeared to correlate with increased family dissolution and unemployment, however, Moynihan adjusted his position accordingly and rejected guaranteed-income programs. A Harvard professor and the head of the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies, Moynihan believed that social science should help shape public policy. Mr. Patterson traces the development of Moynihan’s views through his service in four successive administrations, from John F. Kennedy’s through Gerald R. Ford’s, and as a New York senator.

Conservatives often applaud Moynihan as willing to speak hard truths about the plight of the black family and to uphold certain moral standards. Moynihan’s proposed solutions, however, were liberal, and he believed the government should play a primary role in correcting dysfunction.

By following the social science data available on guaranteed-income programs, even though it conflicted with his earlier opinions, Moynihan recognized that material aid alone cannot guarantee thriving families. In a 2002 speech shortly before his death, he lamented, “We are nowhere near a general theory of family change. And there we shall leave it, the question still standing: Who indeed can tell us what happened to the American family?”

Forty-five years after the Moynihan Report’s publication, the ingredients of a thriving family are neither widely identified or acknowledged. Moynihan’s work invites readers to consider what factors contribute to a flourishing family and the nature of the government’s role in fostering the family’s success.

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