Washington, DC—Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan released the controversial report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, a new brief by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) titled, “Moynihan’s Half Century: Have We Gone to Hell in a Hand Basket?,” finds that the changes in family structure that concerned him have indeed continued, becoming widespread among Whites as well, but that they do not explain recent trends in poverty and inequality. In fact, a number of the social ills Moynihan assumed would accompany these changes in family structure—such as rising rates of poverty, school failure, crime, and violence—have instead decreased.

“Moynihan believed that the rise of single motherhood in the Black community was single-handedly sending them to ‘hell in a hand basket’, but this is simply not true,” said IWPR President and MacArthur Fellow Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., a co-author of the report. “Moynihan overlooked the extent to which Black women would increase their education and earnings and pull their families out of poverty, whether married or not.

In Moynihan’s 1965 report, he famously argued that the fundamental obstacle to racial equality was the instability of Black families, especially the prevalence of single-mother families. He then predicted that the spread of single-parent families would result not only in rising poverty and inequality but also in soaring rates of crime and violence. The analysis performed by IWPR and CCF researchers, reviewing a variety of data for the past several decades, find that these relationships are inconsistent, pointing out a number of other important factors also at work.

The report
finds that poverty has fallen, especially when the value of federal transfer programs is added to family income; school completion at both the high school and college levels has increased significantly; and juvenile violent crime arrests have fallen substantially. All these positive changes occurred while the share of children living with single mothers increased through the mid-1990s for all race/ethnic groups.

While incomes in married-couple families are higher, marriage is not a surefire protection against inequality. Even among married parents, Black children are more than three times as likely to be in poverty as White children, and Latina/o children are four times as likely to be poor as White children. This proves that marriage alone does not increase the economic standing of all families. But one of the legacies of the Moynihan report has been to focus attention on changing family structure, rather than on other factors that are more amenable to policy intervention.

“The preoccupation with strengthening marriage as the best route to reducing poverty and inequality has been a policymaking folly, “ said Philip N. Cohen, Ph.D, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, and a co-author of the report. “These efforts have been ineffective at altering the trends in marriage and family structure, diverting attention from the true cause of family hardship, which is largely based on economic forces, not social ones.”

While marriage promotion programs have proven ineffective, evidence suggests that increasing employment opportunities, wage levels, anti-discrimination policies, and social safety nets have much greater potential to reduce poverty, increase economic and educational opportunity, and decrease racial inequality.

The briefing paper was prepared as part of an online symposium Moynihan+50: Family Structure Still not the Problem for CCF and published jointly by CCF and IWPR. In addition to Drs. Hartmann and Cohen, the report authors include Dr. Jeff Hayes and Dr. Chandra Childers of IWPR.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that conducts rigorous research and disseminates its findings to address the needs of women and their families, promote public dialogue, and strengthen communities and societies.

Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. CCF members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, communication scholars, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners.