(Image reproduced from the NYTimes)
I have just read Joel Klein’s excellent article on the life of Daniel Patrick Moynihan n today’s New York Times Book Review. Moynihan has long been one of my own intellectual heroes. In our 2014 book on the problems of desegregation, Stephen J. Caldas and I wrote about the implications of the famous (or notorious, depending on your perspective) Moynihan Report for attempts to desegregate American schools. I reproduce the relevant section below.
From Still Failing: The Continuing Paradox of School Desegregation, by Stephen J. Caldas and Carl L. Bankston III (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014):
Five decades ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan touched off a storm of controversy when he argued that the high proportion of single female-headed families among black Americans threatened black children with a "tangle of pathologies." Some of his critics denounced his views as racist; others claimed that his concerns embodied patriarchal and anti-feminist assumptions about the superiority of male-headed households. In the ensuing years, the conventional wisdom purveyed by sociology textbooks has consistently held up the Moynihan Report as an example of the "culture of poverty theory," which is identified as a reactionary line of thought that "blames the victim" of social injustice by claiming that socially disadvantaged statuses are products of inferior cultures.
In retrospect, Moynihan deserves credit as one of the most fair-minded and prophetic of modern social critics. The eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson acknowledged in the insightful volume When Work Disappears (1996) that Moynihan did recognize that the unstable black family was the consequence of the American socioeconomic structure. More recently, in a history of the Moynihan Report, the controversy over it and its influence, from its early days to the Obama era, James T. Patterson has argued that politicians, academics, and activists lifted quotes out of context to make accusations against Moynihan.[i] Far from “blaming the victim,” Moynihan simply and reasonably maintained that, having been produced by an unequal and discriminatory economy, one-parent families yielded unfortunate results of their own.
Since the publication of the Moynihan report, the remarkable rise of one-parent families in American society in general has been particularly marked among African Americans. Figure 4.2 shows the percentages of American K-12 schoolchildren in married couple, single male, and single female households, by race/ethnicity, according to data from the 2012 American Community Survey. Despite the historic increase in single-parent families across demographic categories, nearly three-quarters (72.3%) of white schoolchildren lived in married couple families, but almost two-thirds of black schoolchildren (64%) lived in households headed by a single parent, and a clear majority lived in single female-headed homes.
Figure 4.1.Percent of Births to Unmarried Mothers, by Race& Hispanic Ethnicity, 1972-2012
Source: National Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics of the United States, 1980-2003, Vol. 1, Natality (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Printing Office) ; Brady E. Hamilton, Joyce A. Martin, Stephanie J. Ventura, Births: Preliminary Data for 2012. National Vital Statistics Reports, Volume 62, No. 3 (Washington: U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, 2013).
Our research suggests that those concerned about the growth of the single-parent family have missed some of the most serious difficulties created by change in family structure. Families do not influence only their own children, and children are not socialized only by their own families. Children bring influences from their families to their peer groups and, in peer groups, share the influences of their backgrounds with one another. Children, then, are not simply affected by the composition of their own families; they are influenced by the family compositions of all those around them. The undesirable consequences of one-parent families, then, are not additive, but exponential when those from this type of home are concentrated in a social environment.
What is the most important contemporary institution that brings young people together, producing social environments from peer groups? The answer to this question is obvious. It is the same institution chiefly responsible for preparing young people to take positions in our socioeconomic structure—the school.
Considering the school as a social environment leads us to the following line of reasoning: (1) black American children are much more likely than white American children to live in single-parent families. (2) Children from single parent families show much higher rates of behavioral and attitudinal problems than other children do. (3) Schools with large concentrations of children from single parent families will therefore tend to be plagued by behavioral and attitudinal problems. (4) Schools with large concentrations of black children will tend to be disproportionately plagued by behavioral and attitudinal problems because these will be precisely the schools with large concentrations of children from single parent families, and (5) Children in schools with large concentrations of black children will therefore be faced with disadvantageous school learning environments. These disruptive learning environments will in general lead to lower levels of school achievement for all students in those schools, regardless of those students' own race or family background.
This series of syllogisms indicates that prevailing family structure may be a major barrier to achievement and upward mobility for children in majority black schools. It also suggests that efforts by parents of all races (including blacks) to avoid black school districts may often be motivated by the desire to avoid less than optimal school environments caused by the predominance of children from one parent families, and not simply motivated by irrational prejudice. In an article published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family[ii], we found that the negative association between percentages of black students in schools and levels of school achievement could be statistically attributed to the prevalence of single mother-headed families in those schools. The problem of minority schools, in other words, did not appear to be race per se. Instead, the problem seemed to be the concentration of single parent families in those schools.
As the percentage of black children in single parent families has grown to a majority, racial redistribution has also become the redistribution of the family structures that dominate schools. This can either enhance or hurt the academics of schoolchildren. In Louisiana, where a large proportion of the public school population lives in single parent families, teachers report that negative student behavior is the primary reason they leave the profession.[iii]
Figure 4.2. Distribution of Children in K-12 Grades among Family Structures, by Race & Ethnicity, 2012
a. Family Structures of White School Children
b. Family Structures of Black School Children
c. Family Structures of Asian School Children
d/ Family Structures of Hispanic School Children
Source: 2012 American Community Survey data, Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database] (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2014).
[i] James T. Patterson. Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle Over Black Family Life – From LBJ to Obama (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
[ii] Carl L. Bankston III & Stephen J. Caldas, “Family Structure, Schoolmates, and the Racial Inequalities in School Achievement,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 60 (1998): 715-723.
[iii] Mike Hasten, “State Officials Pleased With Accountability Ranking,” The Advertiser, January 7, 2004, B3.