Politics & Policy

Pat Moynihan’s Legacy

Sometimes the best minds are in government.

Ronald Reagan was fond of saying that “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away.” An effective quip; it was, alas, demonstrably untrue.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died Wednesday at age 76, was senator from New York from 1977 to 2001. He was a member of the administrations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. And he was ambassador to India from 1973 to 1975 and a U.S. representative to the United Nations from 1975 to 1976. Despite this extensive government service, Moynihan was truly one of the “best minds” the United States — and New York in particular — ever produced.

While Moynihan had shortcomings as a politician and legislator — the political realities of holding elective office in New York pushed him imprudently leftward — his Senate voting record should not overshadow his considerable contributions to the social sciences and to our understanding of urban and social policy. For this is where his real legacy rests. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine the massive changes over the last decade of American social and domestic policy without Pat Moynihan.

Toiling as a junior cabinet official for Lyndon Johnson, in 1965 Moynihan wrote “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” which soon became known, simply, as “The Moynihan Report.” The report caused an enormous stir in political and academic circles. Moynihan had uncovered something new in his research on black families in the United States, and this little discovery would ultimately transform domestic politics and social science.

The conventional wisdom at the time was that poor economic conditions put pressures on families yielded rising welfare rolls, criminal behavior, drug use, and other social pathologies. Indeed, before the 1960s, if unemployment rose, the numbers of those seeking government assistance rose, too. This correlation led social scientists to conclude that economic conditions alone drove social stability and well being. A strong economy, it was believed, means fewer divorces, less drug use, fewer people demanding government help. In short: unemployment down = welfare down; unemployment up = welfare up.

But Moynihan noticed a twist in the data on urban families: that correlation between economic prosperity and welfare began to change. Moynihan observed that even as unemployment figures improved, greater numbers of people were seeking government relief. This discovery came to be what political scientist James Q. Wilson called “Moynihan’s Scissors,” as the lines marking data points on welfare and unemployment over time ceased moving in tandem and instead — in an alarming departure from previously established trends — began to cross one another, like a pair of scissor blades. Now it was unemployment down, welfare up.

This observation demonstrated that in some critical ways, most social scientists had confused correlation with causation. A further implication was that perhaps it was the absence of strong families that gave rise to poverty, not the other way around.

For this, Moynihan was accused of “blaming the victim” — pointing a finger of responsibility at American blacks for the problems they faced. But he was doing nothing of the sort. Moynihan himself came from a “broken home” — raised by a single mom in the days before “Murphy Brown” — and grew up in urban America. This experience led him to be concerned with the plight of the poor, especially the working poor in inner cities.

But Moynihan let the data speak for themselves. And it was impossible not to conclude that in some significant way broken families were driving a tangle of social pathologies in the inner city — a kind of domestic axis of evil — and that this didn’t have to do as much with the availability of jobs or economic opportunity in inner cities as most social scientists had previously assumed.

Moynihan’s willingness to look anew at the “root causes” of the problems afflicting urban areas and his employment of the analytical power of social science on contemporary problems were revolutionary. He broadened and deepened our understanding of the complicated interplay of culture, economic forces, and government incentives.

Most importantly, Moynihan’s work enabled social scientists, intellectuals, and politicians to put the health of the American family — as opposed to just economic conditions — at the forefront of American domestic policy. In doing so, social scientists were soon able to demonstrate that some ill-conceived federal welfare programs were actually discouraging family formation and cohesion and were thus fostering the decay of American cities and the urban experience.

An irony of Moynihan’s life was his unwillingness to accept some of the consequences of the revolution in social thinking that he himself was responsible for starting. The landmark overhaul of the federal welfare program in 1996 — 30 years after Moynihan shook the foundations of social policy — was vigorously and passionately denounced by Moynihan. He worried — unnecessarily it now seems — of its implications for poor Americans, in particular American blacks.

Moynihan’s intellectual curiosity and his love and respect for scholarship may have been rare commodities in political and public life. His was a life led with a deep understanding of Richard Weaver’s maxim that “ideas have consequences.” Few men of ideas have been more consequential than Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The nation mourns his death as it celebrates a beautiful American life.

Nick Schulz is editor of TechCentralStation.com.


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