Rod Dreher

Reihan Salam’s piece on the future of American family structure put me in mind of an episode of the Diane Rehm show I listened to yesterday. Diane’s guest was historian James Patterson, discussing his book “Freedom Is Not Enough,” a reappraisal of the controversial Moynihan Report 45 years after its release. It must have been a repeat, this show, because you can hear the whole thing here, and find there a link to order the book if you like. The official name of what would become known as the Moynihan Report was, “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action.” The report cited the large number of out-of-wedlock births among black Americans, and predicted a whole range of chronic dysfunction if the black family weren’t shored up. It’s central contention: that the heart of the dysfunction of black American society in general was the rapid deterioration of the black family. As historian Patterson explained on the Diane Rehm program, many of the report’s recommendations weren’t implemented because politicians were afraid of being called racist.
Forty years after the Moynihan Report’s release (that is, in 2005), Kay S. Hymowitz appraised the continued slide of the prospects for many black Americans, related to precisely the factors Moynihan identified. Hymowitz:

But Moynihan went much further than merely overthrowing familiar explanations about the cause of poverty. He also described, through pages of disquieting charts and graphs, the emergence of a “tangle of pathology,” including delinquency, joblessness, school failure, crime, and fatherlessness that characterized ghetto–or what would come to be called underclass–behavior. Moynihan may have borrowed the term “pathology” from Kenneth Clark’s The Dark Ghetto, also published that year. But as both a descendant and a scholar of what he called “the wild Irish slums”–he had written a chapter on the poor Irish in the classic Beyond the Melting Pot–the assistant secretary of labor was no stranger to ghetto self-destruction. He knew the dangers it posed to “the basic socializing unit” of the family. And he suspected that the risks were magnified in the case of blacks, since their “matriarchal” family had the effect of abandoning men, leaving them adrift and “alienated.”
More than most social scientists, Moynihan, steeped in history and anthropology, understood what families do. They “shape their children’s character and ability,” he wrote. “By and large, adult conduct in society is learned as a child.” What children learned in the “disorganized home[s]” of the ghetto, as he described through his forest of graphs, was that adults do not finish school, get jobs, or, in the case of men, take care of their children or obey the law. Marriage, on the other hand, provides a “stable home” for children to learn common virtues. Implicit in Moynihan’s analysis was that marriage orients men and women toward the future, asking them not just to commit to each other but to plan, to earn, to save, and to devote themselves to advancing their children’s prospects. Single mothers in the ghetto, on the other hand, tended to drift into pregnancy, often more than once and by more than one man, and to float through the chaos around them. Such mothers are unlikely to “shape their children’s character and ability” in ways that lead to upward mobility. Separate and unequal families, in other words, meant that blacks would have their liberty, but that they would be strangers to equality. Hence Moynihan’s conclusion: “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure.”

Here is a key sociological point from Hymowitz:

In the middle-class mind, however, no sane girl would want to have a baby at 15–not that experts mouthing rhetoric about the oppressive patriarchal family would admit that there was anything wrong with that. That middle-class outlook, combined with post-Moynihan mendacity about the growing disconnect between ghetto childbearing and marriage, led the policy elites to frame what was really the broad cultural problem of separate and unequal families as a simple lack-of-reproductive-services problem. Ergo, girls “at risk” must need sex education and contraceptive services.
But the truth was that underclass girls often wanted to have babies; they didn’t see it as a problem that they were young and unmarried. They did not follow the middle-class life script that read: protracted adolescence, college, first job, marriage–and only then children. They did not share the belief that children needed mature, educated mothers who would make their youngsters’ development the center of their lives. Access to birth control couldn’t change any of that.

As historian Patterson pointed out on the Diane Rehm Show, it’s a shibboleth that young women are getting pregnant out of wedlock today because they lack knowledge of and access to contraception. Middle-class and upper-class women aren’t particularly chaste either; generally speaking, they know what everybody else knows about contraception, and they by and large use it. For some reason, women in the lower classes (and men) lack the intention or self-control to use contraception — in part, one may surmise, because they are not as future-minded as the middle classes, and don’t live with the social stigma attached to unwed childbearing. Emily Yoffe, who writes Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column, and who is nobody’s idea of a social conservative, observes that teenagers today account for only 23 percent of out of wedlock births, which means that women having babies without husbands are unquestionably old enough to know what they’re doing. She adds:

[Modern] culture is out of touch with the needs of children. Some researchers identify out-of-wedlock births as the chief cause for the increasing stratification and inequality of American life, the first step that casts children into an ever more rigid caste system. Studies have found that children born to single mothers are vastly more likely to be poor, have behavioral and psychological problems, drop out of high school, and themselves go on to have out-of-wedlock children.

This is no longer just a black problem, and hasn’t been for a long time. CNN reported last year that out of wedlock births have hit a record high in the US:

While 28 percent of white women gave birth out of wedlock in 2007, nearly 72 percent of black women and more than 51 percent of Latinas did.

[UPDATE: Reader B.D. Rucker points out something in this CNN line that I missed: CNN is wrong to say that the percentages apply to women of various races; rather, 28 percent of white babies born in 2007 were to unwed mothers. Likewise with black and Latino babies. Still, the point is an important one. — RD]
Know what the black out-of-wedlock birth rate was when Moynihan issued his report? Twenty-six percent. White America is today where black America was 45 years ago. The future does not look good — and Patterson said there is no policy that can compel people who have decided they don’t have to get married to have children to do so. Ideas have social and economic consequences, though. As Moynihan put it nearly half a century ago:

There is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos.

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