Moynihan’s Tangle of Pathology

James T. Patterson’s opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times seeks to resurrect the 1965 Moynihan report. Entitled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the report documents the “tangle of pathology” that limits the life-chances of poor African American households and their members. Moynihan basically argues that, while past discrimination resulted in the condition of the African American family in 1965, the family is now sufficiently troubled as to persist in its lower-class position even if there were no more discrimination. The Moynihan report is considered a foundational text in the “culture of poverty” approach to understanding persistent racial inequality.

Patterson suggests that history is proving Moynihan correct. A crisis of out-of-wedlock childbirth disproportionately affects African American women and children born out of wedlock are more likely to drop out of school and have children out of wedlock themselves. Patterson’s solution? Provide intensive intervention for the young children in poor neighborhoods.

But here’s the thing.

You don’t need the Moynihan report to make that argument. In fact, you’d be better off without it. The Moynihan report ultimately suggests that the pathological conditions in African American FAMILIES (not neighborhoods) produce people who would be incapable of educational and economic success even if they did not experience discrimination. Patterson’s interventions into the lives of children does not address the family. If you wanted to really take Moynihan seriously, wouldn’t you need to figure out how to eliminate the difficulties experienced by and within poor single-parent households?

That Patterson ultimately ends up talking about neighborhood-level interventions is telling. Poor African American families headed by single mothers tend to live among other such families in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods. When I was getting my Masters’ in social work I was a case manager in a Chicago public housing project in the “State Street Corridor” – a stretch of about 30 blocks of housing projects including the Robert Taylor Homes, Ida B. Wells and Dearborn homes. Although only a few short miles from the Miracle Mile, the area was an island unto itself – a part of the city many Chicagoans never laid eyes on unless they took a wrong turn driving home from Chinatown. In the project where I worked, routine delivery of the US mail was sporadic, gunfights between rival gangs occasionally broke out in the mid-afternoon and having your telephone installed was a monumental challenge.

My case management duties included performing intake assessments of welfare recipients who had reached their time limits or were deemed ineligible for further benefits, identifying barriers to employment and developing a program to assist the acquisition of work experience and marketable work skills. It was heart-breaking work. Almost every intake I conducted included the client crying with the pain of remembrance as she told me about the personal tragedies and disappointments that riddled her past and, often, derailed her economic progress. Working in the neighborhood gave me a small bit of insight into the violence and uncertainty characterizing everyday life in that community. It was a world in which a parent needed to be prepared to fight tooth and nail for her own and her child’s health, education and safety. It was a place where parents rushed to meet their children as school let out because they were worried that the day they did not come their child would walk in the path of a stray bullet or be recruited by one of the gangs who controlled the public spaces from afternoon through the wee hours.

I came to see many of my clients as heroes bearing the weight of cares that would crush most of us, and I wanted to help them change their neighborhood. My supervisor grew frustrated with my calls to the schools and health centers and my desire to increase communication with law enforcement. As a case manager, they said, the neighborhood was not my concern. I was supposed to focus on job readiness (how to answer the phone, interviewing skills, getting set up with donated interview clothes) and setting up my clients with “work experiences” that paid less than minimum wage (e.g. passing out flyers for a local business). If necessary, I could engage in some therapeutic sessions oriented toward overcoming personal and family barriers to work readiness. The tipping point for me was the day I sat coaching a client on telephone skills while we listened to the popping of gun-fire outside. The absurdity was beyond my comprehension.

There is a “tangle of pathology” to be sure but it is not in the family. Instead it lies in the nature of a society that cares so little for its own citizens that it would create dying, segregated neighborhoods (for it was racism and Chicago politics that created the State Street corridor) riddled by violence and then attribute the difficulties residents of those neighborhoods experience to their own inadequacy.

Around the same time that I was working in the projects, a young white woman who lived in Chicago’s well-off Lincoln Park neighborhood was murdered while jogging alone at night. I remember being amazed by public reaction to the murder – the collective expression of shock that something like that could happen in Chicago and the anger people expressed at suddenly feeling they were not safe when alone after dark. While I regretted the death, I also regretted the position of privileged ignorance shaping public outcry. While some city residents were just catching on, Chicago already was that kind of town.

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3 Responses to Moynihan’s Tangle of Pathology

  1. Gerald says:

    Sorry. Unless you take the position that this nation should plan where each person lives and works, this country doesn’t create dying segregated neighborhoods. The truth is that it is impossible to eliminate poverty. If eliminating poverty were attainable, someone would have done it by now. But Marxist regimes, European social democracies, all failed to eliminate poverty. That is one of the main fallacies with people who blame “society” for issues like this: the false idea that poverty could be eliminated if only we tried hard enough.

    The issue, instead is that poverty does not have to coincide with crime and illegitimacy. Lots of nations far poorer than ours don’t have our crime and illegitimacy problems. What is more, black America did not have those problems to this extent in the 1960s and prior, back when the black community was far poorer and much more segregated. Crime, illegitimacy, not valuing education … those are CULTURAL problems.

    The truth is that I believe that people such as yourself know that poverty cannot be eliminated. MAYBE we can have a better social safety net (although I challenge you to define “better” using the example of a large nation that has actually implemented it), but poverty, class, privilege and the lack thereof will always exist. Instead, you folks use the fiction of “the failure of society that allows poor segregated neighborhoods to exist” (and this is not a race issue … if you want to see impoverished whites go to Appalachia, and increasingly the midwestern rust belt) in order to keep from addressing the cultural issues.

  2. Andrea Voyer says:

    For the record: I am not speaking for anyone but myself so I ask that any future responses or criticisms being levied directly at me instead of “us folks” or “people like me.”

    Gerald wrote: Unless you take the position that this nation should plan where each person lives and works, this country doesn’t create dying segregated neighborhoods.

    My response: This is false. City, state and federal policies, urban plans, political redistricting, school district boundaries, distribution of subsidies etc, etc, have everything to do with segregation. Massey & Denton’s American Apartheid does a great job documenting this.

    Gerald wrote: poverty cannot be eliminated

    My response: I also find it hard to imagine a system in which there are not people who are poor relative to others in their society. However, there is a difference between being relatively poor and dying of
    malnutrition, from exposure, lack of clean water and basic medical care. In the past 100 years the US has done much to eliminate outright starvation, etc. Furthermore, while I do not imagine an end to relative poverty, I also do not believe that being born poor must consign you to a life of
    poverty. Most research on the intergenerational transmission of poverty
    has been conducted in the US, but the little cross-national research in existence does suggest that the more well-developed institutions of social support are, the weaker the relationship between poverty at birth and future income.

    Gerald wrote: Crime, illegitimacy, not valuing education … those are CULTURAL problems

    My response: I need to separate crime, “illegitimacy” and education. I do not believe that there is a cultural predisposition to criminal
    behavior. I do believe that there is frequently criminal behavior when
    it comes to economic gain and that cultural differences lead to differences in the perception of the criminality of rule-breaking.
    “Illegitimacy” has always existed and only in some times and places is it seen as a problem and treated as such. Thus, it is a culturally defined problem that would not be a problem at all if there were adequate social support for parents. Not valuing education is a fallacy. In fact, on average poor kids and their parents have high hopes for their education but lack the knowledge and resources they need to realize those hopes. See Schneider & Stevenson, The Ambitious Generation for more information.

    Gerald wrote: this is not a race issue … if you want to see impoverished whites go to Appalachia, and increasingly the midwestern rust belt…
    My response: Race matters. Historical housing discrimination (e.g. GI bill housing benefits sending whites to the suburbs and blacks to the housing projects), current (re)segregation of Middle class African American neighborhoods and urban public schools and ongoing discrimination makes this an issue of race and class. On average, African Americans do not have the same economic resources to pass on to their children and to weather tough times (e.g. home equity) as whites.
    Check out Conley, Being Black, Living in the Red for more information.

  3. omalone1 says:
    Just read this and liked it.

    In regarsd to your report, I am moved by the case management part, as it just reflects the extent to which people are treated as commodities, with these isolated “parents” often being used as the buffer for contempt.

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