PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Let this session of Congress be known as the session, which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.
BEN WATTENBERG: But it was not to be an easy war, and there was more to poverty than just a lack of money. In 1965, a young academic in the Johnson administration began a serious study of how culture and economics were intertwined. Daniel Patrick Moynihan examined the data and wrote, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." The report, published by the Department of Labor, used data to focus attention on the problems of black families.
DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: These are accurate statistics, most of them government statistics. Most of them are available if you dig through those Census volumes. The issue is, what are we going to do about these facts?
BEN WATTENBERG: Scouring the Labor Department's statistics, Moynihan found, unsurprisingly, that when unemployment went up, more people went on welfare, and vice-versa. This correlation seemed to be set in stone. But Moynihan noticed that something was changing.
SENATOR DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN (D-NY): In 1963, that correlation had disappeared. Suddenly the unemployment for minorities, as well as everybody else, was going down, and the dependency rate, if you want to put it that way, was going up. Now, what was this all about?
BEN WATTENBERG: According to Moynihan, "at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family."
DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: It seems to me that there are a great many Negro Americans, perhaps half the population is securely in the middle class, doing very well, taking care of itself, needing no help from anybody, thank you very much. But the slums are also filling up with a lower-class people, unemployed, ill-educated, ill-housed, for whom the cycle of no jobs and bad education and bad housing just reproduces itself and takes its most pregnant personal form in the great tragedy of the family lives of these men and women and of their children.
GLENN LOURY (Boston University): The Moynihan report takes up the question of what would be necessary to bring African-Americans into a status of equal opportunity in American society and argues that a major impediment would be that the family structure among blacks was weaker and was becoming a major problem.
BEN WATTENBERG: Out-of-wedlock births among blacks had gone up from 17 percent in 1950 to 26 percent in 1965. By 1970, that figure would reach 39 percent. More children were being raised without the presence of fathers.
DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: At any given moment, two-thirds of the Negro families are husband-and-wife families. But over the lifetime, only about a little more than a third of Negro children come of 18 having lived all their lives in such a family. And that hurts people. That deprives them of opportunities. Not to have a father, not to have a mother, you've lost something that helps you in life. And so this process feeds back into the cycle.
BEN WATTENBERG: For Moynihan, the issue was more than just one of dry social science. From the age of 9, he had been raised in a single-parent home.
JAMES Q. WILSON (UCLA): It was his view, a man who grew up in a female-headed single-parent family, quite sensitive to this issue, that without an intact family, the problems of manhood, of establishing true manliness among some black Americans, would prove to be very difficult, possibly insoluble.
BEN WATTENBERG: Moynihan's argument convinced his boss, President Lyndon Johnson.
PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Perhaps most important, its influence, radiating to every part of life, is the breakdown of the Negro family structure. And when the family collapses, it is the children that are usually damaged.
BEN WATTENBERG: The Moynihan report stirred the pot. Was the erosion of the black family the consequence of a culture that was broken or of discrimination or of an economy that could not produce enough good jobs?
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA (George Mason University): What Moynihan did was to notice that perhaps the family itself ought to be addressed as an explicit issue for social policy and not simply the economic issue of having enough jobs and opportunities.
BEN WATTENBERG: Opportunities had been growing for blacks during the 1960s. Civil rights legislation killed Jim Crow. The black poverty rate declined, and the black middle class grew. To many civil rights leaders, Moynihan's views were heresy.
GLENN LOURY: We had the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been enacted, a great victory for the civil rights movement. We had the Voting Rights Act of 1965, bringing African-Americans fully into the body politic. Now along comes someone who says, "Yes, hold on, but wait just a minute. Have you noticed these social trends?"
JAMES Q. WILSON: Now, the reaction, of course, was "Moynihan is
blaming the victim." The inundation of criticism of him in the early 1960s was ferocious.
BAYARD RUSTIN (Civil Rights Activist): The interesting thing is that if one considers the Moynihan report about the breakdown of the Negro community, one needs to look back to the Irish and to the Italian experience, which is really simple, that as the heads of families were permitted by this society to have economic independence, all of the so-called defects of crime, illegitimacy and the like disappeared.
BEN WATTENBERG: Another key study of the time looked at the importance of the family, this time in relation to education. Sociologist James Coleman's report was called "Equality of Educational Opportunity." It had been mandated by the 1964 Civil Rights Act to study the effects of school segregation.
CHRISTOPHER JENCKS (Harvard University): Coleman had two big expectations when he did his report. He thought he was going to find that the schools that black children attended got far less adequate resources than the schools that white children attended, and he thought that he was going to find that the resources that schools got made a big difference to students' achievement.
BEN WATTENBERG: To test these theories, Coleman and his researchers surveyed over 600,000 students and 4,000 schools. It was one of the largest social science projects ever undertaken. Working day and night on a tight deadline, holed up in a hotel room, Coleman and his team crunched the numbers.
CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: This was really a mammoth undertaking. The number of social scientists, some living today, who could claim to have ever written a major piece of work in three months is extremely small. In fact, it may be zero other than Jim Coleman.
BEN WATTENBERG: By looking at the numbers, Coleman ended up challenging conventional wisdom as well as his own previous views.
DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN: Early one evening, there was a reception at the Harvard Faculty Club, and Seymour Martin Lipsett, the incomparable Marty Lipsett, walks in, sees me, comes over and says, "You know what Coleman's finding, don't you?" I said, "No." He said, "It's all family."
BEN WATTENBERG: The Coleman report pointed to the family as the most important indicator by far of how a child would perform at school. And since the Moynihan and Coleman reports were published, the American family, black and white, continued to change, but not necessarily for the better.
CHRISTOPHER JENCKS: I think today most social scientists would agree with Moynihan's view that single-parent families really have adverse effects on children and that this contributed to the problems of African-American communities in the 1960s and since, but also now there are the problems of Latino and white and other communities.
BEN WATTENBERG: Not only did black out-of-wedlock birth rates skyrocket, but so did white rates. In fact, by 1999, the white illegitimacy rate was equal to the black rate when the Moynihan report was written. And black out-of-wedlock births reached almost 70 percent.
But there is some good news. The teenage birth rate is down. This may well lead to lower out-of-wedlock birth rates in the future.
GLENN LOURY: If we ask the question today of how the Moynihan report looks, now we look back 35 years later, I'd have to say it's looking pretty good. A fairly prescient piece of social forecasting would, I think, have to be a fair-minded person's judgment. I wish I could produce the document that would look as good 35 years from now.
BEN WATTENBERG: Out-of-wedlock births were not the only problem. Social scientist Francis Fukuyama has called the phenomenon "the great disruption."
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: I think that in many ways, a lot of the problems that occurred during the great disruption were the result of a much too expansive sense of individual entitlement and, you know, almost total absence of responsibility for your spouse, for your children, for your neighbor, country, all of the communities in which we're embedded.
BEN WATTENBERG: And we can measure that disruption. Here's just a sample. The nature of the family was changing. In the 1960s, divorce rates spiked. Once it was rare and called "living in sin." The number of men and women living together without the benefit of marriage went up six-fold between 1960 and 1970, and then another six-fold between 1970 and 1998. Today, about half of all those getting married have lived in a cohabiting relationship.
A third disruption concerned drugs. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the use of marijuana increased by over 400 percent; mind-altering hallucinogens by over 800 percent; cocaine, 2300 percent.
The worst part of the great disruption was crime. Pat Moynihan warned that if more children grew up without the presence of fathers, the result would be social chaos, including crime. Crime rates soared, and crime and punishment became one of the most important issues in American life.