Forty Years Wandering
John F. Kippley on Moynihan’s Warning & Our Long Failure to Heed It
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” In what came to be called The Moynihan Report, the future senator, then a staffer in Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor, described the black illegitimacy rate as a key factor in the social problems of the poor black family.
He thus drew the ire of other social scientists who dismissed illegitimacy as a social concern and raised the hackles of those who feared a Big Brother government controlling the sexual activities of black people on welfare. He also raised the fears of those who believed that the sexual behavior of mutually consenting legal adults is of no interest to the public and who realized that any concern with illegitimacy among black people would lead to a concern with the public consequences of other people’s sexual behavior.
Moynihan wrote for a small audience of high-level-policymakers (only 100 copies were printed), and he never intended the Report for general distribution. However, President Johnson referred to it in a commencement address at Howard University on June 4, 1965, and called for a White House conference on the plight of the black family later that year, and so the Report was published by late July. Between its publication and the start of the conference in mid-November, Moynihan and his concerns about illegitimacy rates were so pilloried that at a planning meeting in New York on November 9, the question of family stability was stricken from the agenda.
In his Report, Moynihan said all the standard things about low wages, poor education, the heritage of matriarchy imposed by American slavery, the need for more jobs, and the need for the government to help the economically and socially disadvantaged black man to advance to middle-class status. But he did not stop there. He also pointed to rates of illegitimacy and to fatherless families as important negative factors in black culture, and he made plain his thesis that “at the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.”
What were the rates that so concerned Moynihan? According to the 1963 figures then available, the black illegitimacy rate was 23.6 percent and the rate of fatherless families was almost 25 percent, and Moynihan believed there was a connection. Both black and white illegitimacy rates had risen from 1940 to 1963, the white rate from 2.0 percent to 3.07 percent and the black rate from 16.8 percent to 23.6 percent. In his Report, a half-page illustration was labeled in all caps, “The Nonwhite Illegitimacy Ratio Is 8 Times the White Ratio,” a good case of what he would not have done if he had intended the Report for general publication.
The result of the controversy was that his major thesis—that black cultural acceptance of illegitimacy and fatherless families was making life more difficult for blacks themselves—never made it to the White House Conference on the Black Family, where the talk was confined to jobs, education, and welfare.
The Report carried no recommendations, but it contained sufficient references to population issues to infer that part of the recommended “National Action” would be to encourage black people to have fewer children. “One index [explaining why middle-class blacks do well] is that middle-class Negroes have even fewer children than middle-class whites, indicating a desire to conserve the advances they have made and to insure that their children do as well or better.” Some of the critics of the Report saw enough about population in it to fear an effort at black quasi-genocide.
John F. Kippley has been writing to support the traditional Christian teaching on contraception since 1967. With his wife, Sheila, he founded the Couple to Couple League in 1971 to promote marital chastity through natural family planning. A revised edition of his Sex and the Marriage Covenant will be published by Ignatius Press. The Kippleys can be reached through Natural Family Planning International, Inc. (www.naturalfamilyplanningandmore.org).
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