Cory Leonard

On Family Breakdown

In politics on March 4, 2014 at 6:02 am

What do we know about family breakdown?   The scholar-statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan explored the crisis of breakdown within the black community and in 1984 delivered the Godkin Lectures at Harvard where he explained that 40% of the poor are children:

He has been worried about the effects of family breakdown for decades. In 1965, as Assistant Secretary of Labor, he was the principal author of ”The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” That controversial report warned that the social disorganization of the ghetto, reflected in the increasing rate of illegitimacy and number of female-headed families, would be self-fueling and would undercut the goals of the then powerful civil rights movement. The report was attacked as racist (it had pictured the matriarchal black family as deviant and characterized its problems as a ”tangle of pathology”), and the issues Mr. Moynihan tried to raise were buried for years. He dwells on this episode in his lectures, noting that single-parent families are still much more common in the black than the white community and quoting at length black scholars who are now openly dismayed at black family disintegration. But he is careful not to repeat his misadventure. He believes that family disorganization is now so pervasive among whites as well as blacks that the prob-lem is no longer primarily racial.

”Poverty is now inextricably associated with family structure,” he says. But his repeated claims about ”correlation” and ”association” between poverty and family breakdown avoid harder questions about the character and direction of causal relations between these two phenomena, and the degree to which Government policy can affect either. No doubt single parenthood exacerbates poverty; most women cannot earn as much as men. But has it been a significant contributor? Mr. Moynihan cites a Congressional Budget Office study showing that the increase in child poverty since 1979 is also related to recession, high inflation and reductions in income-maintenance programs. And research he does not mention argues that poverty has recently been growing faster among two-parent than single-parent families.

via 40% of the Poor Are Children.

Moynihan’s original report was excoriated but over time it became clear that his analysis began to apply to white families as well.  At a conference four decades later major scholars reassessed his findings. James Q. Wilson explained succinctly why marriage was “the core of culture”:

“Marriage was invented to control men. Men like sex, but they don’t like taking care of children, unless they’re born in their own family. Getting men to take responsibility for women and the children they father is one of the most difficult tasks society faces.” via Scholars Re-Examine Moynihan Report – Harvard Gazette

These larger questions still resonate.  What is the social benefit derived from an institution of marriage (regardless of how you define it, at least for the sake of argument.) Is the redefinition of marriage a boon for equality as well as marriage stability as David Blankenhorn seems to have repositioned the argument? Will the “terms of surrender” for cultural conservatives be absolute and punitive?



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