The Long Shadow

The legacy of the Moynihan Report and the limits of postwar liberalism

In Rochester NY, where I live, a recent poverty initiative has been proposed to address some of the most deeply entrenched poverty areas of this country. History casts its long shadow over the understanding of poverty evinced by these initiatives. Short on proposals to empower the community, the reading lists for the working groups are filled with reports that view poverty as an individual, psychological or social problem rooted in family structure and individual psychological trauma. You can find Paul Ryan and the Cato Institute as well as the work of several liberal thinkers, but nothing of the tradition of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. The role of political economic structure in the creation of inequality and the continuing prevalence of poverty gets nary a mention. Despite the hoopla, after several years of operation, little of substance to alleviate poverty has issued from this project.

Much of the recent history of attitudes toward poverty and race, according to both Daniel Geary and Susan Greenbaum, was shaped by the views formulated in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous 1965 “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” generally called “The Moynihan Report.” Moynihan was working at the Department of Labor in the Johnson administration when he prepared a report for the President hoping to influence Johnson’s War on Poverty. The report exerted a tsunami-like effect on our thinking about poverty in America, and it brought the concept of the ‘pathological black family’ into mainstream discourse. Moynihan subsequently was a major force in the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s, leading the charge of neo-conservative intellectuals. How did this report come to have such a profound influence on the political debates of its time? The story tells us something important about the limits of post war liberalism and its inability to address the challenges of the social movements of the sixties. Its failures set the stage for the neoliberal revolution, in which the poor and minorities are viewed as disposable subjects to be shaped in the image of large capital.

Both venerated and vilified, Moynihan was a complex figure whose exact views are not easily pigeonholed. He was a Kennedy-Johnson liberal with social democratic leanings who later became associated with the neo-conservatives. Yet, later in life, as a senator, he opposed Bill Clinton’s regressive welfare reform. In the initial stages of his career, represented in the Moynihan Report, he retained elements of social democratic theory. He agreed, for instance, with civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. that the question of equality required more than just civil rights, but social and economic ones. In fact one of the main pillars of the argument in the Report was the need to integrate social equality not just civil rights into political policy. Moynihan supported measures that would strengthen social rights such as a family wage and even a guaranteed annual income while being a cultural conservative.

Nonetheless, Moynihan floundered on the problem of the “culture of poverty;” a topic of debate in his time. To be sure Moynihan did not see the pathology of the African American family as historically. He was sensitive to its deep roots in American Slavery, which he considered the worst in world history. Still, his patriarchal vision trumped his social democratic sensibilities. The Moynihan Report argued that the main source of persistent poverty in African American communities was due to the breakdown of their family structures. Despite the general rise in prosperity in the country, African American families were not prospering. In place of the steady progress of other ethnic groups, Moynihan saw disorder: broken families, crime and patterns of welfare dependency. Paradoxically, increases in employment lead to increases in welfare. Moynihan argued that jobs alone would not end welfare “dependency”: “The fundamental problem . . . . is that of family structure” (Greenbaum, p. 3). The economic progress of the African American community, went the line of thought, was being held back by the high number of fatherless families. Wherever such a family structure exists, a “tangle of pathologies” follows; including crime, delinquency, teenage pregnancy, and elevated school dropout rates. Men without jobs were stripped of their masculinity and boys reared in matriarchal families were set on a path of failure that reached across generations.

Understanding the conflicts in Moynihan’s work requires seeing the interrelation between several different elements: his social democratic version of vital center liberalism which accepted the pluralistic approach to ethnicity and was uneasy with social protest; his Catholicism, which simultaneously encompassed commitments to social equality and a paternalist notion of the family; and a technocratic view of social reform in which social science, and not popular mobilization, was the motor of social change.

Moynihan’s position reflected the tensions in the postwar liberal conception of equality. Moynihan, like other liberals, understood the barriers to equality that African Americans faced. His report contains a historically sensitive analysis of the unique horrors of the American version of slavery, but he retained a liberal commitment to meritocracy. He believed that individuals had to be able to compete in an open marketplace. As Geary notes, “The report contained the seeds of a left-wing challenge that deepened liberals’ war on poverty and a neo-conservative attack on the welfare state” (p. 9). Like many New Deal intellectuals, Moynihan adopted a “vital center” liberalism that was elitist, anticommunist and valued order and consensus over conflict. Often at odds with the protest movements of the time, Moynihan was highly critical of community action programs in his work Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding. He believed in a regulated capitalism and in the importance of integrating labor unions as a buttress against communism. But this labor accord was to be strictly capitalist.

Moynihan’s biography combined with his politics to shape his perspective. He was the product of a broken family. He absorbed elements of Catholic social teachings, which led him in diverging directions. He was influenced, on the one hand, by the progressive aspects of catholic social philosophy, especially the emphasis on the rights and dignity of workers. On the other hand, he also shared the patriarchal assumptions of the church. The male dominated family was the basic unit of society, and the pillar of economic and social stability. While Moynihan’s fusion of new deal economic liberalism and social conservatism was not unique, it decisively shaped his interpretation of ethnic and racial matters.

Like many of his fellow Kennedy-Johnson liberals, Moynihan took a technocratic approach to reform, trusting the power of social scientific knowledge to diagnose and remedy social ills. Moynihan and his peers in the policy community felt that the use of statistics provided precise and irrefutable proof of social patterns. As Geary argues, the legitimacy of policy intellectuals was linked to their perception as neutral advisors — social technicians — not political partisans. In Moynihan’s view, the statistical evidence in favor of what came to be called “Moynihan’s scissors” — the view that welfare usage increased at the same time as employment increased — was definitive evidence that the mother-centered families in African American culture led to a pathological dependency on government aid. Moynihan’s evidence did not in fact “prove” this in any definite way. But his assumption that a statistical correlation established a causal connection, and his unexamined commitment to a patriarchal family structure, had lasting impacts on welfare policy.

By the late 1960s Moynihan’s outlook began to change. After Nixon was elected, Moynihan went to work for him, and while he supported a basic minimum income for all, he also counseled Nixon to employ benign neglect in dealing with problems of race and poverty. Post war liberals’ faith in scientifically directed social change and government intervention declined. They felt that social engineering had failed. Instead, they found in an excessive demand on government services it was unable to fulfill. Along with Glazer who felt that the ”The breakdown of traditional modes of behavior is the chief cause of our social problems,” Moynihan had become skeptical of creating change though deliberate social policy and allied with neo-conservatives.

Greenbaum takes these issues in a more radical direction than Geary, but at the expense of historical specificity. The Moynihan report is less a reflection of the tensions in liberalism than its abandonment. For Greenbaum, Moynihan’s report came at a turning point in US history when funding for the adventurous social programs of the Johnson administration was cut to provide funding for the Vietnam war and the urban riots of the 1960s were eroding support for social programs. Moynihan’s report fueled a backlash: “Framed as a policy document to help uplift poor black families and correct past discrimination, it came to be regarded by both supporters and distractors as an indictment of African American culture, a pessimistic warning that legal rights and safety net programs would not be enough.” (p. 2)

Certainly, both Greenbaum and Geary give attention to the reception of Moynihan’s work. Critics challenged not just the causal explanations contained in the report, but the interpretive frameworks and normative commitments employed by Moynihan and his supporters. Black sociology for example, challenged the privilege of liberals to interpret African American experience for African Americans in an elitist way. Feminists challenged the patriarchal assumptions about the family and extensive changes in family life. Moynihan and his fellow centrist liberals however, proved singularly unable to acknowledge some of the legitimate issues these critics raised.

Greenbaum’s book takes us beyond the debates of the 1970s, where Geary’s book essentially ends, to demonstrate how the long shadow of the Moynihan Report has had an impact on policy up to the present. Whereas the neo-conservatives still supported some version of the welfare state, the neoliberalism of the 1980s and beyond sought to roll it back. Moynihan’s view of the pathological black family became part of that activist and reactionary attempt to roll back the social welfare state. Greenbaum follows these debates from the 1980s through to recent attempts to commodify and privatize welfare and profit off the new neoliberal deregulatory environment.

Moynihan’s original view of the mother-dominated family as the prime source of delinquency and crime found its way into popular consciousness as a fear of the rebellious black man and the denigration of the poor black women as a ‘welfare queen’. The latter revives the old notion of the deserving poor. The images were carried forward in neoliberal approaches to poverty. “Increasingly” Greenbaum writes, “poverty has been viewed as an individual problem that can be solved only by individuals making changes that enable their ascension into the middle class – gaining new skills or overcoming impediments like addiction.” (p 115). Neoliberals pursue remedies like improving the manners and motivation for the poor to make them more acceptable to employers, to show proper work discipline and acceptance of authority. Other reformers sought to promote marriage, upgrade parenting skills and support for children to break the generational cycle of poverty. According to this view, the lack of personal responsibility, and not social inequality and political domination are the major causes of poverty.

Greenbaum claims neoliberalism introduces new forms of social engineering that are aimed at disciplining and shaping individual behavior to conform with the neoliberal behavioral ideals. Greenbaum traces the consequences of the neoliberal outlook on several issues, including marriage promotion programs, which locate the key to poverty eradication in intact families, the decimation of public housing which displaces the poor, breaks up their culture (which it sees as the basis of their pathology) and isolates them in the suburbs, to the criminalization of African American culture especially youth, in which the stereotype of the pathological black family operates. She also shows how these developments usher in a new type of governmental surveillance and management of the poor. Fostered by groups like ALEC, conservatives have gone on to promote laws that have reduced the discretion of judges, increased mandatory sentences and created a permanent population of prisoners incarcerated for relatively trivial crimes. Once the poor, especially the African-American poor, are seen as criminal and socially deviant, punitive government action is easily justified to change their behavior. For Greenbaum. the carcerial state illustrates this a type of neo-liberal paternalism, a form of governmental management of the poor and minorities. Similarly, the Clinton era welfare to work reform, reinforced the image of the unproductive welfare recipient incapable of middle class self-regulation.

While I think that Greenbaum is correct in seeing the role of neoliberalism in transforming the discourse of race, I think she tends to see too much continuity between Moynihan and the neoliberals. Neoliberal ideas were formulated before the debates over poverty in the post war era as a reactionary opposition to the welfare state and of the use of state powers to bring about desirable social conditions. They rejected any notion of the public good as a social democratic, if not socialist, illusion. They were opposed to the social justice and redistributive aims of the new deal coalition.

Elements of this reactionary coalition is well documented in Nancy McLean’s recent book Democracy in Chains. In her analysis racial questions were at the core of the important American version of neoliberalism formulated by James Buchannan had an explicit racial component. It was intended to roll back the civil rights movement through a federalism that stressed states’ rights and a strong claim to resist central authority using the unanimity rule. Here basic rules to be legitimate had to be subject to unanimous consent. These premises take us far from Moynihan’s later chastened new deal liberalism. At the least Greenbaum could have taken a page from the sociology of knowledge found in Weber and Mannheim and asked about the social carriers of the neoliberal ideology a point emphasized in McLean’s book

Greenbaum raises questions about the social construction of knowledge via the question of knowledge of poverty: “how do we know, or think we know what poverty is and, more important what are its causes” (p 139). Such an approach to the construction of everyday knowledge would have fit well with her emphasis on studies that take the perspectives of the poor seriously, however, she falls into functionalist platitudes. For instance, she claims that those in power tend to like ideas that support their point of view even if they are poorly thought out. Here a greater focus on the independent role of neoliberalism would have enriched her discussion. In addition to questions about the strata of the carriers of this ideology we need to ask how power interests structure public discussions that is how they can influence this discourse by setting agendas or excluding certain issues or reasons. It would also have to look at the life worlds of ordinary participants. A noteworthy study in this regard is Arlie Russell Hochshild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which studies the world of a number of tea party supporters.

Greenbaum rejects the approach of the elite expert who wants to direct social change from above. She argues that culture-based welfare reform like relocating the poor, supporting marriage and individual tutoring have by and large failed. They rarely included reference to the inequalities generated though political economic forces which continue to undermine viable solutions. Instead of band aid solutions like mentoring, structural reform is needed: “Without reforming distorted structures of banking, real estate, criminal justice, public education and civic participation” Greenbaum notes, “these measures will not stanch the tide of poverty.” (p142) The real causes lie elsewhere in low wages and the lack of jobs.

Greenbaum supports a collaborative community approach, which hearkens back to some of the original anti-poverty programs of the 60’s. It rests on the idea that “poor people have valuable insights and creative energy to offer in finding solutions to the problems they face” (p 145). Community organization and strong involvement by those directly impacted by policy is a central to this approach to the problems of poverty. Policy researchers do not listen to the poor and do not take their experiences, feelings and concerns seriously. Their voices are rarely heard, and they often lack political influence. In ignoring these voices however, researchers often employ their own middle-class assumptions and produce unsubstantiated research and poor policy. The reason these failed approaches continue is hence not social scientific but ideological.

Brian Caterino is an unaffiliated scholar who lives in Rochester, NY His works include The Practical Import of Political Inquiry, and with Sanford Schram edited, Making Political Science Matter.


Daniel Geary, Beyond Civil Rights: The Moynihan Report and Its Legacy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 288 pg.

Susan Greenbaum, Blaming the Poor: The Long Shadow of The Moynihan Report on Cruel Images About Poverty, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015.


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