In early 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then serving as the Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Lyndon B. Johnson (later a 4-term senator from New York), released a report under his own initiative called The Negro Family: The Case For National Action (known as the Moynihan Report, 1965).  He asserted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was inadequate to improve the outlook for Negros, and rather than their opportunities expanding, their circumstances were destined to get even worse.    The reason?  Negros as a group were not prepared to compete in American life with other ethnic and regional groups on an equal playing field. Centuries of extreme mistreatment and continued racism had damaged the fundamental infrastructure essential for them to succeed:  the Negro nuclear family was crumbling.

The report is lengthy and full of facts and figures, some of which I’ll get into later, but in essence, it stated that due to increasing illegitimate births, divorces, and paternal abandonment, Negro [1] children were growing up in female-headed households in rapidly increasing numbers.  Evidence of this family collapse was found the increasing non-white welfare claims even as non-white unemployment was down.  He cited estimates that only a minority of Negro children reach the age of 18 having lived all their lives with both parents.  This breakdown of the family was having adverse effects on academic performance and juvenile delinquency of Negro minors, especially males.

In fact, Moynihan’s report had a great deal to say about the Negro male.  When slavery was abolished, Negros were given liberty, not equality, and the Negro male especially was the continued subject of intense hostility.  Moynihan proposed that the Jim Crowe laws humiliated the Negro male in particular:

“Keeping the Negro “in his place” can be translated as keeping the Negro male in his place: The female was not a threat to anyone.  Unquestionably, these events worked against the emergence of a strong father figure.  The very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four star general, is to strut.  Indeed, in 19th century America, a particular type of exaggerated male boastfulness became almost a national style.  Not for the Negro male.  The “sassy nigger [sic]” was lynched.”

He continued that the effects of urbanization, unemployment, and poverty resulted in the wife entering the labor force and becoming the main provider, or having case workers assigned who are normally women and deal directly with the housewife.  Either way, the husband/father became acutely aware of his impotency and marginalization.  Moynihan quotes Margaret Mead from Male and Female, 1962:

“In every known human society, everywhere in the world, the young male learns that when he grows up one of the things which he must do in order to be a full member of society is to provide food for some female and her young…Within the family, each new generation of young males learn the appropriate nurturing behavior and superimpose upon their biologically given maleness this learned parental role. When the family breaks down—as it does under slavery, under certain forms of indentured labor and serfdom, in periods of extreme social unrest during wars, revolutions, famines, and epidemics, or in periods of abrupt transition from one type of economy to another—this delicate line of transmission is broken. Men may founder badly in these periods, during which the primary unit may again become mother and child, the biologically given, and the special conditions under which man has held his social traditions in trust are violated and distorted.”

Moynihan describes a “tangle of pathologies” — including discrimination, poverty, unemployment, juvenile delinquency/adult crime (the criminal justice system being harder on Negroes), and family disintegration — that reinforce and perpetuate each other.  He quotes E. Franklin Frazier, who’d been making similar observations about Negro families a decade earlier:

“As the result of family disorganization a large proportion of Negro children and youth have not undergone the socialization which only the family can provide. The disorganized families have failed to provide for their emotional needs and have not provided the discipline and habits which are necessary for personality development. Because the disorganized family has failed in its function as a socializing agency, it has handicapped the children in their relations to the institutions in the community. Moreover, family disorganization has been partially responsible for a large amount of juvenile delinquency and adult crime among Negroes. Since the widespread family disorganization among Negroes has resulted from the failure of the father to play the role in family life required by American society, the mitigation of this problem must await those changes in the Negro and American society which will enable the Negro father to play the role required of him.”

Moynihan concludes his report with a call to national (i.e., Federal Government) action, because without something changing, he saw the problem only becoming worse.

The Moynihan report was very controversial at the time (and remains so today), attacked mostly from the left by feminists [2] and those decrying the cover it gave conservatives to “blame the victim” [3]  These critics rejected the idea that Negro promiscuity or matriarchal family arrangements had anything to do with the inequities they faced, and indeed some felt that the white middle-class nuclear family model was inferior to African American matriarchy for the socialization of children [4].  As far as I can tell, the only thing the report did was incite a furor (causing many white sociologists to find safer things to study) and it was never used in any substantive way.

A few years ago, the Urban Institute revisited the Moynihan report in anticipation of its 50th anniversary.  Their data is stunning.  In 1960, about 20% of black children were born to unmarried mothers, as opposed to 2-3% of white children.  By 2010, it’s become nearly three quarters of black children and three tenths of white children.  In 1960, about 20% of black children lived without their fathers, as compared to 6% of white children.  In 2010, it had risen to 53% of black children and 20% of white children.  In 1960, just over one half of black women were married and living with their husbands, as compared to two thirds of white and hispanic women.  In 2010, only one quarter of black women, two fifths of Hispanic women, and one half of white women lived with their spouses.  I would have loved to include the Urban Institutes graphs, but since they’re copyrighted, I’d really encourage you to look for yourselves.  You don’t have to scroll down very far.  I summarized a little of their data in the table, and I have included Jajhill’s graph on out-of-wedlock births from Wikipedia (which can be found here), but the Urban Institute’s charts are even more revealing.

Metrics of family dissolution

There are several things to note from the Urban Institute’s data.  Clearly, Moynihan’s described patterns continued among blacks as predicted.  But now, white families are in just as bad shape as black families were when Moynihan first sounded the alarm, and whatever “tangle of pathologies” affecting white families (collapse of manufacturing jobs?), it certainly doesn’t include the appalling racism that blacks have historically faced.  Something else is happening.  It is also interesting to note that by all these metrics of family disintegration, it appears the greatest changes occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, with things seeming to have leveled out a bit starting in 1990 and then getting worse again in the early 2000s.


The 1970s and 1980s were an interesting time in church history as well, as the conservative church leaders ran into an increasingly progressive society head-on.  Conference talks are available at going clear back to 1971, not too long after the Moynihan report.  It’s interesting to read what they were worried about.  They were concerned that fathers lead their families (not likely a direct response to the Moynihan report, but still) [5].  They were concerned about fathers who felt that they were filling their roles simply by providing, and not by being loving, present, and involved.  They were especially concerned about mothers leaving the home and seeking employment and fulfillment elsewhere [6], and either allowing others to raise their children or simply not having children.  They were concerned about the increasing rates of divorce, which they were convinced was caused by selfishness and the enticements of the world.  They spoke out against abortion and birth control and the associated attitudes of self-gratification without the desire to accept responsibility [7].  They were worried about the proposed ERA and the effect it would have on families [8].  One can see that the campaign to “defend the family” began long before the Proclamation on the Family [9].

Yes, some of the things they said we might find cringeworthy today, and some we outright reject.  We pretty much all use birth control at this point, and working mothers are common enough to be unremarkable.  Obviously, my personal worldview colors everything I read, but the impression I had wasn’t so much that birth control itself was bad or that women shouldn’t involve themselves in the world outside their homes, but rather that these church leaders felt the attitudes that accompanied these things threatened the primacy of the family in the minds of the people.  Instead of accepting divinely ordained roles/duties of family and finding joy therein, church leaders felt people were seeking self-gratification and fulfillment in pursuits of the world and viewing the family as merely an accessory/option to a well-rounded life.  Much of what they said could be seen as directed at women, but they were also speaking the words that have made Mormon men the most domesticated and family-oriented I know.

I remember several years ago being surprised at the hostility shown on LDS blogs towards the church’s preaching on the family.  Paraphrased examples:

“Is it the gospel of families or the gospel of Jesus Christ?  If the latter, why don’t we stick to it?”

“Why are they preaching against divorce?  Nobody wants to get divorced unless the alternative is worse, and nobody does it without agonized deliberation and prayer.  All preaching against divorce does is shame those who’ve gotten a divorce.”

“Why are we constantly preaching family, family, family?  Everybody does the best they can in their families, and this preaching simply excludes those who are single or in non-traditional family arrangements from feeling fully part of the church.”

Clearly, the notes the church leaders were sounding were sour to many, but equally clearly, based on the data, they had had something to worry about.  Whether you’d consider them prophetic or simply expressing the Christian views of the day (Moynihan was a practicing Catholic), much of what they feared would happen, actually happened.

Questions (let’s ignore LGBT concerns for now, as they’re a significant category of their own and have received a lot of discussion lately):

  • How serious are the changes in the American family, really?  Do they matter at a macroscopic scale?
  • How much effect did the church leaders’ conservative preaching actually have on LDS families?  If all it did was delay LDS acceptance of progressive attitudes/practices, by how much?  A generation?  A half generation?
  • How much does the man’s self-perception affect the durability of the family structure?  What attitudes (e.g., being expect to be head of house or primary provider) contribute to keeping him there, and what attitudes contribute to him deciding to leave?  (or is the question even relevant in our more egalitarian society?)
  • What can we foresee as consequences of the mainstream dissolution of the traditional family and the adoption of many more flexible arrangements (unmarried cohabitation parents, proliferation of step-parents, step-siblings, etc.)?

Any profound, or even just interesting, observations?







Next time, “The Calamities Foretold”!

[1]  I’m using the term “Negro” because that was the term used at the time and in the report.  By the way, much of Moynihan’s data was for “non-whites”, which included approximately 9% Chinese, Japanese, and East Indian

[2]  For example, Joyce Ladner’s 1971 Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman, and Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, argued that African American women’s matriarchal and cooperative ethos was superior to the white middle class nuclear family

[3]  William Ryan’s best-selling Blaming the Victim (1971), which popularized the phrase, decried Moynihan’s theories “as attempts to divert responsibility for poverty from social structural factors to the behaviors and cultural patterns of the poor.

[4]  Though Ladner apparently changed her mind later

[5]  e.g., “It is the will of the Lord to strengthen and preserve the family unit. We plead with fathers to take their rightful place as the head of the house. We ask mothers to sustain and support their husbands and to be lights to their children.” – President Joseph Fielding Smith, opening address of Apr. 1972 conference

[6] e.g., “…we must never forget that one of woman’s greatest privileges, blessings, and opportunities is to be a co-partner with God in bringing his spirit children into the world.

It is of great concern to all who understand this glorious concept that Satan and his cohorts are using scientific arguments and nefarious propaganda to lure women away from their primary responsibilities as wives, mothers, and homemakers. We hear so much about emancipation, independence, sexual liberation, birth control, abortion, and other insidious propaganda belittling the role of motherhood, all of which is Satan’s way of destroying woman, the home, and the family—the basic unit of society.” – President N. Eldon Tanner, Oct. 1973 conference

[7] “We live in a culture which venerates the orgasm, streaking, trading wives, and similar crazes. How low can humans plunge!”   – recently-minted President Kimball in October 1974.  (Okay, so maybe not the most appropriate quote about self-gratification, but way too amazing not to squeeze in somewhere!)

[8] e.g., “While the motives of its supporters may be praiseworthy, ERA as a blanket attempt to help women could indeed bring them far more restraints and repressions. We fear it will even stifle many God-given feminine instincts.  It would strike at the family, humankind’s basic institution. ERA would bring ambiguity and possibly invite extensive litigation.  Passage of ERA, some legal authorities contend, could nullify many accumulated benefits to women in present statutes.  We recognize men and women as equally important before the Lord, but with differences biologically, emotionally, and in other ways.  ERA, we believe, does not recognize these differences. There are better means for giving women, and men, the rights they deserve.”  — Boyd K. Packer, March 1977 Ensign

[9]  And long before gay marriage was even considered a possibility