Family and Nation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

If the United States is a nation of families—as both conservatives and liberals seem wont to say—then one has a right to inquire into the health of these families. Statistics are a vital way of beginning the examination, and the relevant statistics are truly alarming. Half of today’s marriages are likely to end in divorce; currently, there are 1.2 million divorces per year. When the divorcing wife keeps the children, she becomes a good candidate for poverty. Eighty-five percent of divorced women are not awarded any alimony. When alimony is awarded, the average amount is around three hundred dollars a month for an average of two years. When child support is ordered by the court, it averages about one hundred dollars per month per child. Fifty percent of divorced fathers do not pay the full amount they owe and 24 percent pay nothing. Not surprisingly then, after a divorce, the typical former wife is placed at great economic risk. Currently, more than three million divorced and separated women, along with nearly 4.5 million of their children, live in poverty.

In 1979, the United States Bureau of the Census made a number of ominous projections about American households in the next decades. It forecast that by the end of the century, some three-quarters of American families will be of the traditional mother-father-children sort. This appears comforting until one recalls that in 1960 roughly 90 percent were of this description. Further, Moynihan states that, according to the census, it appears that for the period from 1980 to 2000, “the number of female-headed families will increase at more than five times the rate of husband-wife families. Family households headed by males with no wife present will increase at some six times of rate of the traditional sort.”

While much has been made of the special crisis in the black family, it is clear that majority families have also been under tremendous stress. In 1960, only 9 percent of all white families were headed by a female. By 1984, census data showed that for white families with children the proportion had risen to almost 20 percent. By 1985, the issue of missing children had risen to public consciousness. Missing children are principally an expression of intense warfare within broken families, most of them “majority” families. Most missing children (more than one hundred thousand) have been abducted by a parent.

It is against this disturbing sociological background that Daniel Patrick Moynihan offers Family and Nation, a version of the talks he gave at Harvard University in the 1984-1985 academic year under the auspices of The Godkin Lectureship. (For the serious reader, the fact that the addresses are apparently printed verbatim becomes a source of much consternation.) That Moynihan is hugely qualified for this task goes without saying. For more than a quarter of a century, he has been a principal shaper of both public policy and intellectual debate in the related areas of family life, ethnic politics, and race relations. He served in all the administrations from John F. Kennedy through Gerald R. Ford, and in 1976 he was elected senator from New York. Among the former Harvard professor’s numerous books are the provocative Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding (1969)—a rousing critique of the “community action” strategies against the War on Poverty—and The Politics of a Guaranteed Income (1973).

Moynihan’s most famous work, a White House report, does not always appear in his bibliographies. It is The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1967). Also known as the Moynihan report, this brief document argued that the ongoing civil rights revolution was certain to fail if the growth of single-parent black families living on welfare were not halted. Moynihan hypothesized that when a deprived group rears a large portion of its children “in the generalized disorder of welfare dependency,” it will eventually discover itself falling ever further behind, unable to seize new economic and social opportunities.

Family and Nation is in many ways a return to the problem addressed in Moynihan’s notorious report. The focus of the author’s present concern is not so much the black family, however, but rather the impoverished family in America. His general thesis is that, at long last, the nation is receptive to the notion of “family policy” and ready to learn from its historic neglect of a crucial dimension of political economy. He is also at pains to put the War on Poverty in perspective, defending it from the assaults of Reagan intellectuals such as Charles Murray. Finally, Moynihan seeks to identify a convergence of concern and viewpoint between neoconservatives and liberals regarding possible legislative initiatives in the area of family policy.

Of the three lectures comprising the book, the first—“The Moment Lost”—provides the most useful historical data. (The author engages in a considerable amount of unsystematic reminiscing throughout the work.) Moynihan reminds readers that until the mid-1960’s, social policy in America focused exclusively on individuals. Employment statistics, for example, did not distinguish those who were unemployed fathers of large families. In the eyes of the government, these men were no different from teenagers seeking part-time work or women returning to the labor force after a period of child rearing. This individualistic emphasis, Moynihan notes, was not to be found in other industrial democracies. There, family allowances, maternity leave, and vocational rehabilitation programs had the expressed intention of nurturing family units. Aside from instinctive individualism—Americans are repelled by the idea of a person being awarded a job partly on the basis of his or her status as a parent—a major cause of the American obliviousness toward “organicist” policy perspectives is the failure of Roman...

(The entire section is 2417 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

America. CLIV, March 22, 1986, p. 230.

Booklist. LXXXII, February 15, 1986, p. 838.

Fortune. CXIII, April 14, 1986, p. 131.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, January 15, 1986, p. 117.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 23, 1986, p. 7.

National Review. XXXVIII, March 14, 1986, p. 49.

The New Republic. CXCIV, March 17, 1986, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, March 2, 1986, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, January 3, 1986, p. 45.

Washington Post Book World. XVI, February 2, 1986, p. 3.