Declining US marriages, coupled with growing numbers of “nonmarital” births, are the subject of considerable anxiety in the social policy literature. Such arrangements, it is argued, are ripping apart the social fabric and are a major cause of bad outcomes for boys (see this for example). This line of thinking is heavily racialized, and typically invokes the allegedly prophetic Moynihan Report of 1965. At the height of civil rights legislation, and escalating urban unrest, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a policy analyst for the Dept. of Labor. He wrote a research report on black poverty that concluded female-headed households were a major source of the problem. His controversial explanation shifted attention away from white racism and onto black “culture.” He expressed concern about black male unemployment, but his report suggested that African American parenting produced undesirable workers.
In 1965, 24% of black children lived in female headed households; by 2015 it had increased to 72%. Clearly, it seemed, Moynihan had been right that this was a dangerous and growing problem. In the 50th anniversary of the report, celebratory books, special journal issues, panels, conferences, and editorials have assigned much credibility to this belief. Paul Ryan and Barack Obama both pay homage to the report, illustrating its wide ideological appeal. Exemplary of this trend is a set of articles from the spring 2015 issue of Education Next, a conservative online journal. Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks’ article is titled “Was Moynihan Right?” They present a dizzying array of facts and statistics that appear to answer the question affirmatively. I challenge that verdict.
Moynihan’s “prescience” is monotonously intoned and rarely questioned, even though single-parenthood has increased in all ethnic categories and is heavily concentrated among families in poverty. Trend lines are similar, although rates have remained elevated for African Americans who have suffered consistently higher rates of poverty and unemployment. Moynihan made it a black thing, but it was more accurately a class thing. His black-white comparisons failed to control for income, yielding misleading results both within and between groups. He considered black female-headed households to be inherently deviant and conducive to all kinds of pathological results. Based on one highly flawed statistic, he argued that it was a problem “feeding upon itself.” Critics in the 1960s and 70s targeted these problems with his research, and the overly confident and florid tenor of the narrative he constructed. In the 1980s and since, these legitimate criticisms have been described instead as a vicious “smear campaign” by forces of “political correctness.” McLanahan and Jencks cheerfully repeat this canard in their effort to lionize Moynihan and his report.
Correlations between single parenthood and negative outcomes in school, prison, the workplace, and parenting in the next generation are examined by McLanahan and Jencks, but most of their exposition is not about race, but education and poverty. One graph shows currently that black single mothers with college degrees have substantially higher poverty rates than white single mothers who are high school drop-outs (28% v 18%). This anomalous fact draws no comment. They include a variety of graphs that indicate tandem changes across time related to economic and policy conditions, barely discussed in their analysis.
The 1980s brought a sharp uptick in problem indicators for all groups, especially African Americans and Latinos, and another spike in the early 90s, with brief improvement in the late 90s that ended after 2000, when it worsened again. Apparently straightforward responses to changing opportunities are instead twisted into complex speculations that bad choices by poor women and irresponsible behavior by poor men are the main problem. Inequitable return on higher education for single black mothers contradicts this assertion. Rising rates of single-motherhood alongside falling rates of crime and teen pregnancy are also contradictory. Nonetheless, the image of pathological parents raising pathological children forms a major strut of contemporary racism, a convenient shuffle from biology to culture – a politically acceptable way to blame victims and shift attention away from the real pathological (mainly white) elements in our society who stole houses and pensions and depressed job opportunities in ways that may never recover.
Globally and across time, marriage suffers when work is scarce and men are forced to leave. These conditions explain much of what has happened to US marriages over several decades. Underemployment, declining wages, and mass incarceration have eroded the security of committed relationships. Improved rights offered greater independence for women seeking to avoid or escape bad marriages, but persistently lower female wages intensified disadvantages of their one-income households. These are structural causes begging for structural solutions. Job creation, worker protection, criminal justice reform, and redistribution of wealth would let these marital problems solve themselves.
Susan Greenbaum is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of South Florida