Politics & Policy

A Permanent Family Crisis

(Pavel Losevsky/Dreamstime)
The problem of fatherless children persists half a century after the Moynihan Report.

Hold your temper. Don’t lose it with the kid. Take a deep breath . . .

That’s me, reminding myself to refrain from screaming at the 11-year-old football player who seems oblivious to my instruction. And not only my instructions — everyone’s instructions.

It’s more than a youth-football coach’s frustration with a recalcitrant player. You see, this youth coach has been a state legislator, congressman, and governor. As such, I have seen up close and personal the trials and tribulations of America’s troubled youth — and the damage inflicted by successive fatherless generations within our most marginal communities. One good thing about politics: It makes you think about the world. Public life provides keen insight into how and why things turn out as they do . . . in real life.

I was intimately familiar with the “real life” of the young player in my crosshairs. He had some talent but little discipline. When things went bad in practice or in a game, he seemed to quit. I watched him dog drills and pretend to be hurt. If he didn’t feel like practicing, he didn’t.

Any other kid would have been cut from our sandlot team, but not this one. The coaches were intimately familiar with his daily challenges, the most significant being the lack of a male role model in his life. And so we, too, went along with the program — holding our tongues at behavior that would have been deemed unacceptable in (and probably never even thought of by) any of our other players.

It is only after practice, in the silent environment of my car, that I regain perspective. But I’m not calm. I’m angry — angry at a dysfunctional family that provides little opportunity for this young man to succeed and a culture grown accustomed to throwing money and programs at a problem that simply calls for the presence of a father.

How did we get to this cultural place where everybody knows the results of generational family breakdown, but nobody feels especially excited about fixing it?

A Historical Study

My liberal-arts education takes me back to the groundbreaking pronouncements of a then little-known government bureaucrat by the name of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who nearly 50 years ago broke with liberal orthodoxy in cataloguing the considerable social ills inflicted by the federal nanny state. “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” was authored by Moynihan in 1965, during his tenure as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor. Rarely has a report issued by a little-known bureaucrat created such a national stir.

First and foremost among Moynihan’s complaints was the increasing dysfunction of the black family unit (an enterprise that had held up remarkably well through the worst of Jim Crow), most especially the increasing number of poor, single, female-head-of-household families. This was big news at the time: a Democratic staffer taking on the abject failure of the welfare state, and during the days of Great Society activism yet. There was nothing subtle about Moynihan’s report:

the deterioration of the Negro family [is the] fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro Community at the present time. . . . About a quarter of Negro families are headed by women. . . . The number of fatherless children keeps growing. And all these things keep getting worse, not better, over recent years. . . . [The time has come for] a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans. . . . directed towards the question of family structure.

Identifying a “tangle of pathology” around the deterioration of the black family and detailing the myriad social ills of poor blacks was not a costless proposition for the man who would become an iconoclastic senator. Indeed, Moynihan was subjected to a barrage of ugly indictments, including the always available moniker of “racist.” Persistent attacks and continuing disapproval on the left did not, however, disabuse Moynihan from reasserting his thesis for the remainder of his public life. Yet even as mounds of supporting evidence continued to accumulate, Moynihan’s calls for a “national effort” directed to the reconstruction of the black family went unheeded; destabilization and its attendant consequences proceeded apace.

Many pundits credit former Johnson-administration spokesman and latter-day liberal pundit Bill Moyers with the ultimate rehabilitation of Moynihan and his report. Moyers’s 1986 documentary “The Vanishing Black Family — Crisis in Black America” noted the senator’s prescient observations about the impact of family dysfunction on multigenerational poverty among poor African Americans. And so it became socially acceptable in progressive circles to again cite Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Murphy in the Fast Lane

A few years later, it took a popular sitcom character to generate the next cultural (at least pop-cultural) examination of the rapidly changing American family. Yes, the liberated Murphy Brown (played by actress Candice Bergen) became the object of great cultural analysis when the show’s writers made her an independent single mother, more than happy to go the single-parent route — a decision much celebrated on the show and in more liberal environs around the country. The storyline even became a chapter in the culture wars when Vice President Dan Quayle asked why a character who minimized the importance of fatherhood should be the object of so much adulation.

This well-reported questioning of a pop icon had progressive cannons turned on the VP in no time. And what a set-up it was, especially after the young conservative became the target of the media elite once again for misspelling “potato” at a campaign-stop spelling bee the following month. He was transformed into a convenient poster boy for culturally insensitive social conservatism. Conveniently lost in all of the hand-wringing was Quayle’s point: that despite the heroic deeds of so many single moms, often against great odds, perhaps society should reconsider whether this family arrangement was optimal. But the VP never had a chance; the point was lost in the stampede to attach the latest “ics” and “isms” to his outdated, chauvinistic values.

(A rarely noted addendum to the story was a 2002 interview wherein Ms. Bergen expressed support for Quayle’s view, calling it “a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable.”) Alas, Murphy Brown and her child were white; this chapter of an important cultural debate (unlike past and future ones) would not get sidetracked on the issue of race.

Nothing Funny Here

A decade later, it was a beloved black comedian who decided to rekindle the culture wars by bringing his gun to a rhetorical knife fight. The comedian was Bill Cosby, the same guy generations of Americans had grown up listening to on best- selling comedy albums. But this funny guy had heard and seen enough damage inflicted on the African-American family. He wished to make a point, and take a stand. And he did it at a place and time guaranteed to create a firestorm: in front of the NAACP on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

Herewith, a taste of Cosby (a.k.a. Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable) and his thoughts about the state of the black family:

[I]n our cities and public schools we have 50 percent drop out. In our own neighborhood, we have men in prison. No longer is a person embarrassed because they’re pregnant without a husband. No longer is a boy considered an embarrassment if he tries to run away from being the father of the unmarried child.

Ladies and gentlemen, the lower economic and lower middle economic people are not holding their end in this deal. In the neighborhood that most of us grew up in, parenting is not going on. In the old days, you couldn’t hooky school because every drawn shade was an eye. And before your mother got off the bus and to the house, she knew exactly where you had gone, who had gone into the house, and where you got on whatever you had on and where you got it from. Parents don’t know that today.

I’m talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was two? Where were you when he was twelve? Where were you when he was eighteen, and how come you don’t know he had a pistol? And where is his father, and why don’t you know where he is? And why doesn’t the father show up to talk to this boy?

Cosby’s speech evoked a wide range of reaction. Some applauded the boldness of the move, while others discerned a newly birthed race and class traitor, beating up on the most vulnerable urban poor from a safe perch high atop the celebrity food chain.

Nevertheless, Cosby proceeded with abandon, never hesitating to repeat his conviction that generations of African-American kids had been victimized by the implosion of the black family over the past 50 years.

Cosby’s critique of black family issues was big news, but the specter of fatherless children and its fearsome consequences has spread far beyond a single community. An October 2004 report from the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society concluded that the plague of family disintegration had spread to white families at alarming speed:

For the indices of disintegration that so disturbed Moynihan when he looked at the black family in the mid-Sixties — elevated rates for illegitimacy and divorce, low rates for marriage — are now just as high or higher among whites! . . . perhaps 2005 — forty years later — is the time for “a national effort towards the problems of [white] Americans . . . directed towards the question of family structure.”

Alas, there was to be no Moynihan Report regarding the spectacular unraveling of the white family unit, despite the senator’s request (in 1985) that Congress “adopt a national policy aimed at saving the American family . . . without regard to racial distinctions.”

A Presidential Lament

Now let’s look at 2013, when President Obama bemoaned the absence of a father in his own life:

I never really knew my father. I was raised by two wonderful grandparents. But I still wish that I had a dad who was not only around, but involved, another role model. . . . That’s why I try to be, for Michelle and my girls, what my father was not for my mother and me.

And just a few weeks ago, the president hit the nail directly on the head:

We’ve got to reconnect [young black men]. We’ve got to give more of these young men access to mentors. We’ve got to continue to encourage responsible fatherhood. We’ve got to provide more pathways to apply to college or find a job. . . . It’s ultimately going to be up to these young men and all the young men who are out there to step up and seize responsibility for their own lives . . .

All wonderful words from President Obama; and the evidence supports the notion that the president puts his money where his mouth is. The busiest person in the world makes his wife and daughters a priority. Good for him and his family. But time is passing us by. Fifty years after a civil-rights revolution and the Great Society, and the empirical evidence is damning:

‐ 72 percent of black babies (compared with 24 percent when Moynihan published his report) and 29 percent of white babies were born out of wedlock.

‐ In 2012, 67 percent of black children (compared with about 25 percent when Moynihan published his report) and 25 percent of white children lived in single-parent households.

‐ Black children from fatherless households are twice as likely to commit crimes.

‐ 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes.

‐ 85 percent of all children who exhibit behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes.

‐ 75 percent of all adolescent patients in chemical-abuse centers come from fatherless homes.

‐ 71 percent of all high-school dropouts come from fatherless homes.

‐ 70 percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes.

‐ 63 percent of youth suicides are from fatherless homes.

These statistics are staggering. Not so long ago, they would have been intolerable. But no longer. Five decades of government-sponsored dependence has desensitized us to the enormity of the problem. Today, such devastation is the status quo, protected by a progressive intelligentsia intent on expanding the welfare state and a politically correct elite wholly engaged in explaining away the whys and wherefores of family disintegration rather than putting a stop to the damage. And because poor African-American families received so much attention in the aftermath of Moynihan, much of the progressive Left’s attention is devoted to this subset of poor families. Indeed, their vehement denunciations of commentators from Moynihan forward begs a fundamental question: Do they or do they not believe the damage is real?

But It’s Nobody’s Fault

Rationalizations regarding the root causes of multigenerational poverty (particularly African-American poverty) are all over the progressive literature. The same central thesis lies at the heart of many of the explanations: Those who criticize poor black families’ disunity are unable (or unwilling) to understand the myriad deprivations imposed on the black underclass. Accordingly, it is not difficult to find reams of editorial reviews indicting Cosby (or any other similarly situated contrarian) for their unwillingness to recognize the complex challenges attendant to the plight of poor urban blacks.

The list of obstacles is long, but the primary offerings allow for how poor parents spend an inordinate amount of time making a living, and thus away from parenting; a dominant white hierarchy imposes class warfare on the most marginal minorities; an increasingly technological society leaves its lowest-skilled workers behind; a segregated educational system has failed generations of inner-city poor; and police targeting of minority youths leads to their over-incarceration in overcrowded jails and prisons.

This familiar litany contains both truth and hyperbole. But regardless of political ideology, there should be two primary responses to the narrative:

1. Recognition of “poverty reality.” It’s too easily dismissed on the right, and too often off-limits on the left. Americans should see it for what it is: a subculture wherein mostly African Americans continue to face substantial obstacles to punching their ticket into the American middle class. Dangerous neighborhoods and inadequate schools contribute to a disadvantaged run up the socioeconomic ladder. And although skin color is not nearly the burden it once was, it can nevertheless be a hurdle in achieving economic mobility.

2. The foregoing is not a stopping point. Yes, obstacles must be recognized, but life and expectations go on, and these expectations must be pointed skyward. It’s 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, 51 years since Dr. King’s most famous dream, and 49 years since the Voting Rights Act. The most powerful person in the world is black, as is the world’s most famous golfer (Tiger Woods), America’s most noted cultural icon (Oprah Winfrey), and its most famous neurosurgeon (Dr. Ben Carson). The black middle class has expanded greatly, the economic playing field is flatter than it’s ever been, and more black kids go to college than ever before.

All this represents real progress, not to be minimized because prejudice and economic inequality continue to exist in this imperfect world. It also means the larger culture has a right to expect more from the poor of all races — not least, the notion that maintenance of an intact family is the most effective way out of multigenerational poverty. The president’s plea to “seize responsibility for [your] own life” is especially relevant here.

This central truth had been the glue that kept families of all races and ethnicities together during the worst of (economic) times — and there have been plenty of bad economic times for the nation’s multicolored underclass.

But the welfare state is an equal-opportunity offender. Family dysfunction among the poor is now the national status quo, a state of affairs that eats away at the dreams and aspirations of those fully entitled to participate in the American dream.

Advocates from all sides of the political spectrum speak to the fight for economic mobility. But prescriptions from the left always call for more government: a larger entitlement state that invariably ends up feeding more dependence.

Context here is easy to find; just listen to the Occupy Wall Streeters or ACORNs of the world. The rhetoric is classic, but an observer will need to look long and hard to locate critical reviews of dysfunctional parenting and families.

That same observer will have no problem finding all sorts of blameworthy evildoers allegedly intent on keeping the poor down, a list of miscreants that typically includes “big corporations,” “the 1 percent,” “the religious Right,” and conservative media — convenient targets all for the cultural excuse-makers.

But the time has finally come for the common-sense majority of Americans to double down on truth — the objective kind that most people (still) recognize. This truth rejects the anti-intellectualism of the politically correct crowd; it does not particularly care that a person (or entire group of people) has its feelings hurt by the truth. Nor does it seek to create additional victims because some people are born with more money and/or more-functional family circumstances than others.

The truth is that every child deserves a loving, nurturing family environment. Yet sometimes circumstances dictate that a single parent (usually the mom) runs the household. These single parents often achieve remarkable results in raising their children. But fathers are essential. They must be part of the family equation going forward. Anything less lowers the odds for ultimate success.

The statistics are in plain sight. They are easily understood. Failure means a vicious cycle of family dysfunction of the type we have grown accustomed to over the past 50 years. I (we) cannot afford more failure. My eleven-year-old football player deserves better . . .


A few days after completing the final draft of this essay, I found myself at the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark., on the next stop of my criminal-justice-reform campaign. As is my custom at such talks, I engaged in a critical analysis of our juvenile justice system, particularly with regard to the overrepresentation of minority youth within a resource-challenged system.

After a lively question-and-answer session, I was approached by a serious-looking lady who identified herself as a state employee in the office of parole and probation. In response to her familiar description of the problems attendant to an overcrowded, underfunded system in a poor state, I commented on the contribution of fatherlessness to her professional burden. Her disapproving response stopped me cold: “[Now] you just sound like another Republican.”

Talk about a conversation stopper! It was a reminder of how far afield we have traveled. Here, dads in homes translated to partisan politics. Here, in one sentence, was the partisan stereotyping I have attempted to take down my entire public life — thrown back at me in a most direct manner.

Such incidents serve as a disquieting reminder that this cultural battle is far from won. But common sense should never lose out to partisan caricature. And a common-sense majority must not waver when confronted with devastating pathologies. There is simply too much at stake.

— Robert Ehrlich was governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007. He is the author of America: Hope for Change.


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