Offer better jobs and schools, instead of lectures on marriage, to poor families

Fifty years ago this week, Daniel Patrick Moynihan decried the unmarried status of the black family.

The future senator crafted a document intended to address high rates of poverty in the black community. But he egregiously misunderstood data and history going back to slavery. He wound up admonishing black families, particularly single mothers. What should have been a conversation about education and jobs descended into a scolding about black family values and marriage rates.

We’ve been shaking our collective fingers at poor black people ever since. It’s a political cop-out to questions about raising the minimum wage, job growth and better managing welfare and other public assistance.

Look to Kansas for recent examples. Gov. Sam Brownback issued an executive order creating a council to address poverty. One goal will be incentives for marriage.

The Kansas council would do well to read two new reports marking the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan report by the Council on Contemporary Families.

Brownback is also angling to make law of policy changes his administration instituted around public assistance. Legislators who will be involved could glean pertinent perspectives from the new reports.

The numbers of people seeking taxpayer-funded help in Kansas have dropped dramatically in recent years. But the question remains: Are they are working and faring better economically, or did Brownback simply cut them off?

Moynihan’s heart was in the right place. He wrote as an assistant secretary of labor under the Johnson administration when more than a third of black citizens lived in poverty.

“By attributing black poverty to the dearth of married-couple, male-headed families in northern ghettos, Moynihan seemed to suggest that if blacks would only get and stay married, they would cease to be poor, an absurdity that paved the way for later attempts to substitute marriage promotion for job creation,” one of the new reports found.

One new statistic from that report alone shows the folly of Moynihan’s thinking: “Black and Latino children in married-couple families are, respectively, three and four times more likely to be poor than white children in such families.”

It’s not marriage these families lack. It’s well-paying jobs. That’s why it is far more effective to address education and work than to morally chastise.

Intellectually vacuous and self-satisfying rants about the behavior of others is not a basis for sound public policy.

Not in 1965 and not today.


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