From Moynihan to “My Goodness”

Tracing Three Decades of Fatherlessness in the United States 1965-1995

By Mitchell B. Pearlstein


As this paper is lengthy already, I’ll get right to the point.

Great thanks to my good friend David Blankenhorn for his generous comments in the Introduction. Well before he wrote them, I had been urging people to read his superb new book, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, as no one has shaped this essential national debate over the last few years more pivotally than he has. This essay, for one, and much of everything else I write, owe much to his scholarship and activism.

I’m also grateful to the following reviewers for their comments and suggestions — some of which I adopted and some of which I didn’t, meaning that all shortcomings which remain are mine exclusively: Barbara Thomson Bucha, Therese Groh, Wade Horn, Glenn Loury, Charles Murray, Al Quie, Larry Reynolds, Dean Riesen, Peter Zeller, and Mr. Blankenhorn again.

I’m likewise indebted to the Professors World Peace Academy, for whom I actually wrote the study. More specifically, it was commissioned for the PWPA’s Sixth International Congress, “The Future of the Family,” August 21-25, 1995, in Seoul, Korea. I appreciate that organization’s graciousness in allowing American Experiment to publish this essay independently.

As for things clerical, American Experiment members receive free copies of almost all Center publications, including “From Moynihan to ‘My Goodness’: Tracing Three Decades of Fatherlessness in the United States, 1965-1995.” Additional copies are $4 for members and $5 for nonmembers. Bulk discounts are available for schools, civic groups and other organizations. Please note our phone and address above for membership and other information.

Thanks very much — and more than is usually the case — I welcome your comments.

Mitchell B. Pearlstein
August 1995


Over the past three decades, scholars, policymakers, and other opinion leaders in the United States have been engaged in a vigorous and politically divisive debate about “the family” and “family values.” At times, this debate has become silly and unserious. At times it has been hijacked by politicians for narrow partisan purposes. But as Mitch Pearlstein shows in this valuable essay, despite these shortcomings, a vitally important societal debate has indeed occurred.

The core of this debate has focused on two questions. First, is child well-being declining? And second, is the family getting weaker or is it just “changing”? At bottom, then, the debate has centered on this issue: What are the dimensions and consequences of contemporary family change in the United States?

That debate is now largely over. It is over because one side won. As Dr. Pearlstein documents, an impressive and growing consensus has now emerged among opinion leaders from across the political spectrum. Child well-being is declining. The family is getting weaker. Case closed.

More importantly — and with a degree of unanimity that would have seemed highly unlikely only a few years ago — scholars and policymakers now concur that the principal cause of declining child well-being is family fragmentation, or the steady breakup of the mother-father child-raising unit.

On this core societal conclusion, there simply is no longer much serious intellectual or political disagreement. Some remaining holdouts, yes. Differences in emphasis, yes. Disagreements over solutions, certainly. But important differences over the basic assessment, no. Dan Quayle believes it. So does Al Gore. Bill Clinton says it repeatedly, including in a recent State of the Union address.

Earlier this year, Gov. Pete Wilson of California, who is running for president, declared in Los Angeles that, “fatherlessness is the most urgent social problem in our society.” Two days later in Washington, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia in Congress, similarly concluded that, “father absence is probably the number one problem in the country.” Do Pete Wilson and Eleanor Holmes Norton agree about much of anything else? Probably not. One is a conservative white male Republican. The other is a liberal African-American female Democrat. But they do now agree on this basic point.

Why and how they have come to agree — why so many of us have now come to agree, after contentiously debating the matter for some three decades — is the fascinating story that Mitch Pearlstein tells us in this concise, impressive essay.

His analysis begs the next question, which he himself begins to answer: Now that we increasingly agree on the problem, what next? If the old debate is ending, what is the new one? The old debate focused on describing the problem. Is it really a problem? How big? What caused it? I believe and hope, as I suspect Mitch also does, that the new debate, now being born, will focus on describing the solution.

Indeed, for those of us in the think-tank and social-analysis business — members of what William Safire calls the conceptual frameworkers union — moving the focus of our work from problem to solution now constitutes, in my view, the great task before us. For example, instead of only criticizing a culture of divorce and nonmarriage, can we propose ways to recreate a marriage culture? Instead of only describing fatherlessness, can we point the way toward a fatherhood renewal movement?

This is surely a difficult challenge, but of this I am certain: Guiding us and helping us meet this challenge in the years ahead will be the work of Center of the American Experiment, of which this essay in contemporary American intellectual and political history is an outstanding example.

David Blankenhorn
New York, NY
August 1995

David Blankenhorn is president of the New York-based Institute for American Values and the author of Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books, 1995). He is also chairman of the National Fatherhood Initiative.

(I) Introduction

This paper is grounded in three interlocking ideas:

  • The explosive and continuing increase in fatherlessness in the United States — due to both divorce and out-of-wedlock births — constitutes America’s greatest social disaster.
  • American elites — particularly those in politics, the media, and higher education — generally have worked feverishly over the last three decades not to publicly address this problem.
  • Despite such servility to political correctness, ideological cant and wishful thinking, fatherlessness, in fact, is finally rising to political salience, as both scholarly and everyday evidence can no longer be ignored.

If just three quick sets of statistics can convey this remarkable decline in family life they are these:

  • Only 35 years ago, 5 percent of American babies were born out of wedlock. Currently, approximately 30 percent of all American babies come into this world outside of marriage, a sixfold increase.1
  • Nearly 40 percent of all American children reside in homes where their biological fathers do not live.2 By some estimates, 55 to 60 percent of U.S. youngsters born in the 1990s will spend at least a part of their childhood in such fatherless homes.3
  • To put such trends in international perspective, the United States now leads the world in fatherless families (superseding Sweden), as nearly 30 percent of all American families have come to be headed by a single parent.4

Given the starkness of these numbers, not to mention the implicit human pain embedded in them, why has fatherlessness specifically, and family non-formation and breakdown more generally, not established themselves more definitively as first-tier political issues in the United States?

As suggested, to raise such issues has been to invite four charges, mostly from the political left, that most leaders (on both the left and right) have been severely reluctant to risk: That they are blaming victims (i.e., women and children — especially poor women and children). That they are insensitive. That they are sexist. And most frightening of all, that they are racist. Fear of such epithets, no matter how ridiculous on their face, has effectively intimidated all but a few leaders, in and out of politics.

Or more precisely, it has intimidated leaders as well as other citizens from speaking their minds publicly. In the very useful metaphor of historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (from whom we will hear later), Americans do, in fact, talk a lot about faltering families, though much more bluntly and accurately in their “kitchen table” rather than “conference table” conversations.

Kitchen table conversations, as Whitehead has written,5 involve families and friends and their language is that of “cultural norms and values.” Conference table discussions, on the other hand, include “representatives of the media, the academic world, the policy community,” and their language is that of the “policy sciences — politics and economics.” Which is to say that conference table conversations — those led by politicians — are almost always inappositely analytic and dry.

While this combination of quivering and missing the moral point has helped keep fatherlessness from being a high-profile public issue as such, that’s not to say that surrogate issues have not been central. For if American election campaigns, for instance, have not tackled father absence per se, they have been acutely shaped and contorted for the last three decades by the inescapable products of family breakdown: increased crime, increased welfare, diminished education and similar social failures. In this important sense, fatherlessness has been a clear-cut, if simultaneously shrouded political issue.

Having said this, and as suggested above, sensitive family matters have grown modestly less cloaked in more recent years, as conditions have grown sufficiently grave and glaring. Or as baseball legend and rough-hewn philosopher, Yogi Berra, has said: “You can observe a lot by just looking.”

For further example, while former Vice President Dan Quayle, a Republican, was broadly criticized for talking about out-of-wedlock births in his famous “Murphy Brown” speech during the 1992 campaign, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, has made much the same general point several times since that election. We will return to the “Murphy Brown” episode below, but the point to be made here is that growing numbers of American leaders are beginning to ferret a bit of gumption (as well as coming to more realistic grip) regarding what is acknowledged on all sides to be a very sensitive issue.

Methodologically, this paper will review major studies, essays and events of the last 30 years to aid in tracing the way in which family structure and fatherlessness have been addressed in political and intellectual arenas. Such mileposts will include Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 study for the Johnson Administration, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”; Charles Murray’s 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980; Bill Moyers’ 1986 television documentary on the breakdown of Black families; William A. Galston’s 1990 essay, “A Liberal-Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family”; the 1991 National Commission on Children, chaired by Sen. Jay D. Rockefeller IV; Dan Quayle’s aforementioned “Murphy Brown” speech in 1992; Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s 1993 magazine essay, “Dan Quayle Was Right”; Charles Murray’s 1993 newspaper column, “The Coming White Underclass”; and David Blankenhorn’s 1995 book, Fatherless America.

The purposeful bias in this list, readers should know, is that each item has served to expand recognition of father absence as a severe national problem. The list, in other words, does not contain works which have argued the opposite — that such radically changing family forms are either inevitable, or no big problem, or really quite salutary. Arguments such as these are cited, of course, though more in terms of context than featured presentation.6 Readers might also note that Democrats and Republicans are about evenly split among the likes of Moynihan and Murray, Moyers and Quayle, et al. For purposes of additional context, the following surplus of numbers is horrifying.

(II) Statistical Context 7

  • The number of children living only with their mother increased from 5.1 million in 1960 to 15.6 million in 1993.8
  • About 40 percent of children living in fatherless households have not seen their fathers in at least a year. Of the remaining 60 percent, only 20 percent sleep in their father’s home even one night a month. Only one in six see their father an average of once or more a week.9
  • The U.S. divorce rate nearly tripled between 1960 and 1980 before leveling off and declining slightly in the 1980s. Forty percent of all first marriages now end in divorce. This compares to 16 percent of all first marriages in 1960. No other nation has a higher rate of divorce.10
  • Compared to children in intact families, children whose parents have divorced are much more likely to drop out of school, engage in premarital sex, and to become pregnant themselves outside of marriage. These effects hold even after controlling for parental and marital characteristics before divorce.11
  • In general, the evidence suggests that remarriage neither reproduces nor restores the intact family structure, even when it brings more income and a second adult into the household. Children living with stepparents appear to be even more disadvantaged than children living in a stable single-parent family.12
  • Almost half of unwed teenage mothers go on welfare within one year of their baby’s birth. By the time their first child is five years old, 72 percent of white teens and 84 percent of Black teens have received Aid For Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the main welfare program in the United States.13
  • According to a study of white families, daughters of single parents are 53 percent more likely to marry while still teenagers, 111 percent more likely to have children as teenagers, 164 percent more likely to have a premarital birth, and 92 percent more likely to dissolve their own marriages.14
  • Seventy percent of juveniles in state reform institutions grew up in single or no-parent situations. 15
  • Sixty percent of America’s rapists grew up in homes without fathers.16
  • Seventy-two percent of adolescent murderers grew up without fathers.17
  • Eighty percent of adolescents in psychiatric hospitals come from broken homes.18
  • Three out of four teenage suicides occur in homes where a parent has been absent.19
  • Premarital pregnancy, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and absent fathers are the most common predictors of child abuse.20
  • Black babies born outside of marriage are four times more likely to receive no prenatal care than Black babies born in marriage. White infants born outside of marriage are five times more likely to receive no prenatal care than white babies born in marriage.21
  • The mortality rate of infants born to college-educated but unmarried mothers is higher than for infants born to married high-school dropouts.22
  • Fatherless children are five times more likely to live in poverty compared to children living with both parents.23
  • Overall, 77 percent of white children under the age of 18 in the United States lived with both their parents in 1993, down from 91 percent in 1960. For Black children, the proportions were 36 percent in 1993, compared to 67 percent in 1960.24

So much for statistical prologue. We will never be far from or lack for additionally depressing numbers below.

(III) The Moynihan Report

For a variety of reasons, the so-called “Moynihan Report,” written in 1965, remains the most salient document of the last three decades on family breakdown in the United States. This is so for both sound and unfair reasons; for what it actually argued, as well as for the routinely confused way in which it was received.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, is now in his fourth term as a U.S. Senator from New York. A social scientist by training, he wrote the report — officially called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action — while an Assistant Secretary of Labor in President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Administration. In truth, his less-than 50 pages of text and tables reported nothing dramatically new, as he wrote about the effects of family disintegration and its related problems in the tradition of distinguished Black scholars such as E. Franklin Frazier and Kenneth Clark. Nonetheless, the painful commotion the report generated led directly to two decades of near public silence on the subject of fatherlessness generally, and fatherlessness in the African-American community most precisely.25

As we will see, much important empirical research on families was, in fact, conducted during that roughly 20-year period, from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s, with important examples of those efforts cited in the “Statistical Context” just above. But these activities — essential as they have proved to be — took place largely in offices and libraries behind the scenes. Few academics, elected officials or other public figures went out of their way during this span to seek public attention on the topic, given the absurd charges of racism thrown at Moynihan, as well as the gross misreading of his argument by many civil rights activists, others on the left, plus many journalists. He also was undercut by some of his own colleagues in the Johnson Administration. What did Moynihan (who is white) write and advocate to provoke all this?26

a. What the report said — and what others claimed it said

“At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society,” Moynihan wrote, “is the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.”27

According to Rainwater and Yancey, Moynihan “sought to present a sharply focused argument leading to the conclusion that the government’s economic and social welfare programs, existing and prospective ones, should be systematically designed to encourage the stability of the Negro family.” It was Moynihan’s view, they wrote, that too many Black marriages broke up and too many Black children were born out of wedlock because of the “systematic weakening of the position of the Negro male.”

Slavery, reconstruction, urbanization, and unemployment [Rainwater and Yancey wrote in characterizing Moynihan’s analysis] had produced a problem as old as America and as new as the April unemployment rate. This problem of unstable families in turn was a central feature of the tangle of pathology of the urban ghetto, involving problems of delinquency, crime, school dropouts, unemployment,andpoverty.28

Citing U.S. Bureau of the Census and other data, Moynihan noted that while one-tenth of all white children were then living in “broken homes,” one- third of all “nonwhite” children were living in such situations in 1960.29 Similarly, he showed how the nonwhite out-of-wedlock birth rate was almost eight times higher than the white rate in 1963: 23.6 percent compared to 3.07 percent.30

For all the discomfort and anger it engendered among progressives in government, universities, civil rights organizations and the media, the Moynihan Report was an exquisitely progressive document, as the very brief Rainwater and Yancey excerpts above should make clear. In no way did Moynihan lay blame on Blacks themselves; in every way he indicted the nation’s history of slavery and racial sin. And by focusing on the need to achieve equality of results, not just of opportunity, the report also helped construct the very foundation for affirmative action.

Nevertheless, while some on the left did defend Moynihan — saying that it was ridiculous to think of him as a bigot, and acknowledging that he really wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t already honorably been said by others31 — criticism and perplexity were often severe.

Regarding the media, Rainwater and Yancey suggest, perhaps too kindly, that, “most of the distortion that took place was the inevitable result of the way the press handles ‘social problem’ reporting, with its tendency to think in terms of what is wrong with individuals rather than institutions and to concentrate on personal experiences and suffering rather than on the more impersonal forces behind personal experience.”32

Such dynamics and pressures, however, could not explain the animus toward the report by critics such as William Ryan, a Boston psychologist and civil rights activist who would soon become better known for coining the phrase “blaming the victim.” He had representative things like this to say about the Moynihan Report later in 1965:

Unemployment, the new ideologists tell us, results from the breakdown of Negro family life; poor education of Negroes results from “cultural deprivation”; the slum conditions endured by so many Negro families is the result of lack of “acculturation” of Southern rural migrants.33

“[W]e are in danger,” Ryan concluded, “of being reduced into de-emphasizing discrimination as the overriding cause of the Negroes’ current status of inequality.”34

The very short answer to this last charge (which was consonant with other condemnations at the time) is obviously no: Moynihan had not de-emphasized discrimination at all. He had forcefully cited it as the prime reason for instability among Black families — which, in turn, contributed to various “pathologies.”

Yes, by current understandings, the Moynihan Report might be considered more of a conservative than liberal statement (in part anyway), as it focused with unusual frankness on the kinds of statistical data about families that conservatives are more likely than liberals to publicize. In addition, it was unhesitant in recognizing that fathers matter; once again, more of a latter-day conservative as opposed to liberal trait.

But at the very same time, it was a very liberal document by both past and present definitions, as it spoke with not-yet-spoiled confidence about the capacity of government — particularly the federal government — to make the lives of African-Americans measurably better via programs to increase employment, improve education and the like. While it’s true that many criticized the report because it dwelled more on analysis than remedies, its subtitle after all was “The Case for National Action,” and Moynihan himself at the time was a key architect of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”35

b. The Moynihan Report in perspective

In addition to what already has been suggested, many other useful things can be said about Moynihan’s study (as well as his associated writing at the time), 30 years later. The first has to do with his prescience. Something he wrote then about “inviting chaos” has come to be quoted frequently. Here is the full passage:

From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history; a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder — most particularly the furious, unrestrained lashing out at the whole social structure — that is not only to be expected; it is very near to inevitable. And it is richly deserved.36

As a sociologist, Moynihan, as witness the preceding quote, naturally emphasized matters of family structure. But the primary prism through which he analyzed and prescribed was an economic one. Jobs — good jobs — for Black men were critical if Black families were to have a chance. Moreover, he wrote, government ought to actively see to it, one way or the other, that more Black men indeed had such opportunities. As with other parts and aspects of the report, these themes were misread and discounted, too.

The Moynihan Report, in fact, provided early aid in understanding what was to develop into three different, albeit connected ways of thinking about fatherlessness and poverty, especially in underclass communities.

One is the economic argument: Marriage has become less of a living institution mainly because fewer men are equipped to contribute financially to families, and women thereby have come to view them as less “marriageable.” William Julius Wilson of the University of Chicago, also (interestingly) a sociologist, is the leading scholar associated with this view, particularly as it applies to the loss of relatively good-paying jobs for entry-level workers in inner-city neighborhoods.37

A second tack is rooted in public policies: Programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, goes the argument, make matters worse by seducing recipients into undisciplined choices about sex, schooling, etc., by driving down the personal price to be paid for laxity and failure. Such programs, as compassionately intended as they may be, nonetheless subsidize the very problems they are (poorly) designed to fix. Charles Murray, a political scientist, is the most vigorous and rigorous proponent of this interpretation.38

The third leg is grounded in the very culture: What can anyone expect other than an increase in out-of-wedlock births and divorce, goes this argument, when the media, universities, churches and other defenders of middle-class values lose their bearings and confidence; when basic rules — particularly those regarding sex and marriage — bend and break under counter-cultural assault, as in the 1960s and afterwards? Figures best identified with this view include William Bennett, a philosopher and writer who served as Secretary of Education under President Reagan; David Blankenhorn, a former community organizer and now president of the Institute for American Values and chairman of the National Fatherhood Initiative; and economist Glenn Loury.39 Loury, for instance, recently wrote:

People are not automata; their behavior in matters sexual may not be easily manipulated by changing their marginal tax rates or their recipiency status under welfare programs. It is my conviction that the problem of illegitimacy and family breakdown are, at base, cultural and moral problems, which require broad societal action in addition to legislative change. . . . [I]n every community there are agencies of moral and cultural development which seek to shape the ways in which individuals conceive of their duties to themselves, of their obligations to each other, and of their responsibilities before God. These mainly though not exclusively religious institutions are the natural sources of legitimate moral teaching — indeed, the only sources.40

Needless to say, none of these approaches stand alone, and all recognize (to one degree or another) the effects of racism, past and present. While focusing on the economic dimension, Moynihan instructively dealt with all three. As for the rest of this paper, we will return to each of them.

A final point about the landmark Moynihan Report before moving more rapidly through the 30 years which have followed.

Was it really surprising that the report caused the passionate and intimidating fight that it did? Of course not, as not only did Moynihan take on keenly sensitive questions of family life, he combined them with keenly sensitive questions of race. Yet it isn’t as if the two could have been neatly separated, either then or now. For if American families in general have been flailing for decades, African-American families have been in even greater trouble over the period.

(IV) The Interregnum

I did not realize until after selecting the nine or 10 main studies, television shows, and other documents and events chronicled in this paper that the gap between the first and second items stretched for almost 20 years. As noted, this is not to say that nothing of consequence happened regarding fatherlessness in the United States between the release of the Moynihan Report in 1965 and Charles Murray’s Losing Ground in 1984; only that very little happened publicly.41

Or, much more precisely, that very little happened aloud in terms of seriously questioning the wisdom and effects — especially the effects on children — of exploding out-of-wedlock and divorce rates. Not only was the spirit of the age far from conducive to such skepticism, it was decisively hostile to it, as it was during that period when radical forms of feminism and other “liberating”42 (and simultaneously cloistering) ideologies were remarkably successful in curtailing debate to their tastes. As Moynihan gave early evidence, to violate the rules of dogma and language of the various “progressive” movements then feverishly under way, was to invite great trouble.

Yet as also suggested above, much of the serious empirical research that is now regularly cited as demonstrating that children have been very poorly served by family deterioration took place during the 1970s and thereabouts. For instance, according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead:

The National Survey on Children, conducted by the psychologist Nicholas Zill, had set out in 1976 to track a large sample of children aged seven to eleven. It also interviewed the children’s parents and teachers. It surveyed its subjects again in 1981 and 1987. By the time of its third round of inter

views the eleven-year-olds of 1976 were the twenty-two-year-olds of 1987. The California Children of Divorce Study, directed by Judith Wallerstein, a clinical psychologist, had also been going on for a decade. E. Mavis Hetherington, of the University of Virginia, was conducting a similar study of children from both intact and divorced families. For the first time it was possible to test the optimistic view against a large and longitudinal body of evidence.43

The results of this collective test were commonsensical: Kids (and their moms in particular) were being hurt. Whereas children had been imagined as unrealistically “adaptable,” and whereas “optimistic” writers such as Carol Stack had argued (in Whitehead’s words) that “the single-mother family is an economically resourceful and socially embedded institution,” it was now objectively clear that the opposite was true. Off-stage, scholars such as Zill, Wallerstein, Sara McLanahan and Irwin Garfinkel44 had put the “interregnum” to good use, making it much more difficult down the road for Pollyannish strictures to reign and rule.45

(V) Losing Ground

More potently than any other document over the 30 years under review, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, argued not only that welfare-state programs — as well as consonant policies such as affirmative action and bilingual education — were ineffective in alleviating social problems, but that such ventures tended to actually make matters worse. Such “matters” include fatherlessness. “I will suggest,” Murray wrote:

that changes in incentives that occurred between 1960 and 1970 may be used to explain many of the [deleterious] trends we have been discussing. . . . All were results that could have been predicted (indeed, in some instances were predicted) from the changes that social policy made in the rewards and penalties, carrots and sticks, that govern human behavior.46

Exactly what kinds of rewards and penalties, carrots and sticks did he refer to in this book, released in 1984? In addition to grounding his argument in detailed statistical analysis, Murray used two imaginary characters, “Harold” and “Phyllis,” to speculate about how poor people with “few chips” might take advantage of their available options. Here’s an example:

The bottom line is this [in 1970 compared to 1960, when governmental programs were less generous]: Harold can get married and work forty hours a week in a hot, tiresome job; or he can live with Phyllis and their baby without getting married, not work and have more disposable income [because of welfare]. From an economic point of view, getting married is dumb. From a noneconomic point of view, it involves him in a legal relationship that has no payoff for him. If he thinks he may sometime tire of Phyllis and fatherhood, the 1970 rules thus provide a further incentive for keeping the relationship off the books. [Emphasis supplied.]

Of Phyllis’ possibilities, and those of young women in similar circumstances, Murray likewise wrote:

It is commonly written that poor teenaged girls have babies so that they will have someone to love them. This may be true for some. But one need not look for pscyhological explanations. Under the rules of 1970 [which likely have grown even more enabling in the 25 years since], it was rational on grounds of dollars and cents for a poor unmarried woman who found herself to be pregnant to have and keep the baby even if she did not particularly want a child. . . .

If Phyllis and Harry marry and he is employed, she will lose her AFDC benefits. His minimum wage job at the laundry will produce no more income than she can make [through welfare], and, not incidentally, he, not she, will have control of the check. In exchange for giving up this degree of independence, she gains no real security. Harold’s job is not nearly as stable as the welfare system.47

It goes without saying that Murray was not well-received across the spectrum. He was vigorously accused by many on the left as not only distorting the analysis and numbers, but doing so in mean-spirited and perhaps racist ways.48 Charles Murray is as well-practiced as anyone in American intellectual life in defending himself; he needs no extra bolstering here. But fact is, in no way was he guilty of such transgressions, and one can now detect a near-straight line between his critique of the American welfare system in the mid-1980s and near-universal recognition today of that system’s perversely unintended consequences.

The fact, moreover, that elimination of virtually all welfare programs is now sometimes viewed in even polite quarters as a legitimate and ultimately benign idea is directly tied to Murray taking that position in Losing Ground — a recommendation, not incidentally, which provided many critics with an easy excuse at the time for dismissing everything he wrote. Similarly, the fact that the welfare-reform debate has changed fundamentally over the last two years — from emphasizing helping single mothers find jobs outside of their homes to dramatically reducing the number of children growing up in single-family homes in the first place — is once again a product of Murray’s scholarship and advocacy. Though in this instance, the most important document was his 1993 newspaper essay, “The Coming White Underclass” (which we will discuss below).

(VI) “The Vanishing Family — Crisis in Black America”

If Losing Ground was a breakthrough in intellectual and nearby circles, Bill Moyers’1986 television documentary, “The Vanishing Family — Crisis in Black America,” was a watershed in broader circles.49 Prior to each, obviously, lips hadn’t been zippered entirely on questions of families and fathers — including Black families and fathers. But these two “events” — one a learned book and the other a network TV show — not only increased the salience of such tough issues, but also made it more acceptable for scholars as well as other citizens to talk more freely about them out in the open. They did so a bit, anyway.

Moyers came to network television unconventionally, by way of a 1960s stint in the White House. He had been a very senior assistant in the Johnson Administration, who according to Rainwater and Yancey, had been “fascinated” back then by the Moynihan Report.50 This is how two writers described his two-hour portrait of young Black men and women in Newark, New Jersey, first broadcast in January 1986. The first is by the sociologist and theologian Michael Novak.51

“According to one of the bravest TV documentaries ever made . . . there is a crisis in Black America . . . . Only a tiny fraction of Black children born in America has a father at home during all 16 years of childhood. Nearly 60 percent are born out of wedlock. Such matriarchy is proving colossally destructive.”

Insofar as “there is no basic alternative except the family for character formation,” Novak argued, “the vanishing Black family raises what Harvard’s Glenn C. Loury calls “The Moral Quandry of the Black Community.” Dare one call attention to this sinking, Titanic-like underclass culture? Dare one not?”

Novak said of the “immensely attractive young women and young men” in the program: “How bright and alive they seem, yet how ineffably sad.”

He quotes Timothy, then 26, who had already fathered six children by four different women. “Well,” he said, “the majority of the mothers are on welfare. . . . What I’m not doing, the government does.” This didn’t seem to “bother” Timothy at all, Novak reported.52

Clarinda, then 15, is quoted for good measure: “I wouldn’t want no man holding me down, because I think I could make it as a single parent” — as her mother had tried, as well as her grandmother.

Newsweek magazine, for its part, called “The Vanishing Family” perhaps “the most important documentary in recent memory.”53 Among other things, the brief review noted how “Mother’s Day” in one woman’s Newark neighborhood (according to the program) came not only in May, but every month when welfare checks arrive.

“For all the depressing insights,” the piece concludes, “the program ends with a refreshing idealism about bringing values back. ‘If you say it in your corner and I say it in my corner, and everybody’s saying it,’ concludes Carolyn Wallace, a local activist, ‘it’s going to be like a drumbeat.’”

Moyers’ television documentary and Moynihan’s government report were separated by two decades. They were also, quite obviously, two fundamentally different enterprises. But whereas the Moynihan Report was contorted into a barrier to further public consideration, “The Vanishing Family” seemed to serve a constructively opposite end. Again, this is not to say that debate became safely and comfortably freewheeling; just better than it was. A kind of ice age had been broken. As for why the improvement, two thoughts seem soundest.

Moynihan was relatively unknown in 1965, meaning that many had not yet come to accept his good intentions as a given. Moyers, on the other hand, was a certified liberal (meaning that he was comparatively OK on racial issues), and had been thought as such for more than 20 years. (We will see immediately below how William Galston’s 1990 essay about the importance of two-parent families proved unusually influential, in part, precisely because of his good progressive name.)

Of probably greater consequence, however, is that by the mid-1980s, familial conditions in the United States — particularly but not solely among African-Americans — had ruptured badly enough so that evasion began to give way to modest candor. Enough people were finally afraid enough.

(VII) “A Liberal-Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family”

An exchange of complimentary notes about what the other had written, either in late 1990 or early 1991, between a former assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and the former issues director in Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign, William A. Galston, was illustrative of a this then-emerging, very rough consensus about family failure.

Republican Finn, in an essay about endangered families and children, had written in 1990:

We know that a well-functioning society must condemn behavior that results in people having children who are not prepared to be good parents. I find it astonishing that, in the fact of that knowledge, today we seem to attach more opprobrium to dropping out of school, experimenting on a cat, or uttering nasty remarks on campus than we do to giving birth to what, not so many years ago, were called “illegitimate” children. . . . Children fare better in some circumstances than others, and no decent society will remain silent when it comes to pointing out which circumstances are which.54

Democrat Galston wrote similarly at about the same time:

A healthy liberal democracy, I suggest, is more than an artful arrangement of institutional devices. It requires, as well, the right kinds of citizens, possessing the virtues appropriate to a liberal democratic community. A growing body of empirical evidence developed over the past generation supports the proposition that a stable, intact family makes an irreplacable contribution to the creation of such citizens, and thus to promoting both individual and social well-being. For that reason, among others, the community as a whole has a legitimate interest in promoting the formation and sustaining the stability of such families.55

In the exchange of letters, Finn essentially told Galston that he liked his paper, and Galston returned the salute. This was an encouraging symbolic event given the extent to which leading Democrats and others on the political left were still muffling themselves on “traditional” family questions so as not to offend feminists, civil rights leaders and other major components of the party’s base.

Galston’s paper was very much a breakthrough. As we will see below, a slightly different version of it 56 was key in persuading Democratic members (plus staffers) of the National Commission on Children, in 1991, to endorse unusually direct language on the importance of two-parent families. Similarly, if not the paper itself, then certainly Galston himself and his circle of colleagues, were influential in shaping candidate Bill Clinton’s 1992 successful campaign rhetoric about paternal responsibility and welfare reform, among other things.57 At root, “A Liberal-Democratic Case” gave essential and welcome cover to men and women on the left side of the continuum who had perhaps long shared its ideas, but who had been reluctant for all the aforementioned reasons to speak out. In addition to the just-cited paragraph, what else did Galston, a political theorist, say?

Of poverty, he argued that “after a decade-long economic expansion,” the poverty rate for children is “nearly twice as high as it is among elderly Americans.” And that “it is no exaggeration to say” that “the best anti-poverty program for children is a stable, intact family.” (Emphasis in the original.)58

Yet if the “economic effects of breakdown are clear,” he wrote, the “non-economic effects are just now coming into focus.” Here, Galston noted that while “scholars over the past generation have disagreed over the consequences of divorce, work done during the 1980s has on balance reinforced the view that children of broken families labor under major non-economic disadvantages.”59 He quotes Karl Zinsmeister on this “emerging consensus”:

There is a mountain of scientific evidence showing that when families disintegrate, children often end up with intellectual, physical, and emotional scars that persist for life. . . . We talk about the drug crisis, the education crisis, and the problems of teen pregnancy and juvenile crime. But all these ills trace back predominantly to one source: broken families.60

Of the “education crisis,” more specifically, Galston contended that “recent studies confirm” what many educators have suspected for a while: “[T]he disintegrating American family is at the root of America’s declining educational achievement.” (Emphasis in the original.)61

In light of all this, Galston was nonetheless and appropriately compelled to caution that a “general preference” for two-parent families does not mean that all marriages ought to survive, or that “endorsement of the two-parent family” be confused for “nostalgia for the single-breadwinner ‘traditional’ family of the 1950s.” His left flank thus protected (at least a little), Galston went on to say the following in perhaps the essay’s most important passage:

Having entered these disclaimers, I want to stress that my approach is frankly normative. The focus is on what must be a key objective of our society: raising children who are prepared intellectually, physically, morally, and emotionally — to take their place as law-abiding and independent members of the community, able to sustain themselves and their families and to perform their duties as citizens. Available evidence
supports the conclusion that on balance, the intact two-parent family is best suited to this task. We must then resist the easy relativism of the proposition that different family structures represent nothing more than “alternative life-styles” — a belief that undermined the Carter Administration’s efforts to develop a coherent family policy and that continues to cloud the debate even today. (Emphasis in the original.)

Which takes us to the previously mentioned National Commission on Children, more commonly known as the “Rockefeller Commission on Children,” after its chairman, Sen. Jay D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia.

(VIII) The National Commission on Children

It should not constitute anything remarkable to declare that fathers matter. But it was remarkable — which is to say it was big news on television talk shows and the like — when a 34-member federal panel, with more liberal than conservative members, unanimously endorsed language like this in 1991: “Children do best when they have the personal involvement and material support of a father and a mother and when both parents fulfill their responsibility to be loving providers.”63

Suffice it to say that chances would have been slim for such a straight-arrow proposition to have been included in any similar federal report any time earlier in the 30 years under review. (Also suffice it to say that few report writers would have ever considered the need for such a statement anytime prior to 1965, as no one had yet seriously proposed that fathers are superfluous.) But along with a recommendation to allocate $40 billion in the first year for a refundable child tax credit, the report’s most noted portion was its strong endorsement of two-parent families. “There can be little doubt,” it said,

that having both parents living and working together in a stable marriage can shield children from a variety of risk. Rising rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and absent parents are not just manifestations of alternative lifestyles, they are patterns of adult behavior that increase children’s risks of negative consequences. Although in some cases divorce is the least harmful outcome of a troubled marriage, today’s high rate of family breakdown is troubling.64

Naturally, the report also said that the nation “must never fail to reach out and protect single-parent families as well,” and that, “Many single parents make extraordinary efforts to raise children in difficult circumstances.”65 Yet such boilerplate — necessary and gracious as it was — could not subtract from the significant step forward represented by the unambiguous, if culturally and politically pregnant passage right before it: The one about two-parent families being important. As we will quickly see, this advance did not necessarily clear the way for Vice President Dan Quayle to speak safely on the question of single parenthood during the 1992 presidential campaign, but it was, all things and history considered, real progress.66

(IX) “Murphy Brown”

Right before the (real) Mother’s Day in May 1992, historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote a syndicated newspaper column about the impending birth of a baby to a fictional, unmarried television character, Murphy Brown, the star of a successful comedy series of the same name. Whitehead was neither amused nor impressed. “Baby Brown,” she wrote, “points to our society’s acceptance of out-of-wedlock childbirth. Certainly over the past several decades, the shame and blame attached to unmarried pregnancy has steadily eroded. But with Murphy Brown, unwed childbearing becomes positively appealing.”67

Very shortly afterwards, and inspired by Whitehead’s column, then-Vice President Dan Quayle delivered what came to be known as his “Murphy Brown speech,” although its specific reference to the show consisted of only one sentence — a grand total of 39 words.

“It doesn’t help matters,” Quayle said in a re-election speech, “when prime time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’”68

At which point a fair amount of hell — and mocking hilarity — broke loose.69

It is true, of course, that if someone other than the routinely and unfairly belittled Quayle had said what he had said about Murphy Brown the reaction might have been more sober. Commentators might even have paid more than passing attention to other things he said in what was a substantial speech about families, poverty, values and, most immediately, the Los Angeles riots, which had erupted just weeks earlier. “I believe,” the vice president said, “the lawless social anarchy which we saw is directly related to the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility and social order in too many areas of our society.” He also said:

Children need love and discipline. They need mothers and fathers. A welfare check is not a husband. The state is not a father. It is from parents that children learn how to behave in society; it is from parents above all that children come to understand values and themselves as men and women, mothers and fathers. . . .

Ultimately . . . marriage is a moral issue that requires cultural consensus, and the use of social sanctions. Bearing babies irresponsibly is, simply, wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. . . . Now is the time to make the discussion [about values] public.

As it happened, I was participating in a program at the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune on the afternoon that Quayle spoke, and I got to sit in on the daily meeting at which lead stories are chosen for the following day’s newspaper. When it was time for the appropriate editor to offer his favorites, he proposed the Quayle story with no small dripping of sarcasm: “Quayle,” he said, “is even criticizing Murphy Brown now.” The point is not that this one editor at this one newspaper saw little more than a joke; the point, rather, is that Quayle’s good speech was received by many with more silliness than seriousness.

First reactions by President Bush and his senior aides, one must note, were not much more encouraging, as they perfectly reflected the deep and continuing ambivalence and political nervousness implicit in the issue. “Quayle was not helped,” a reporter wrote a few days after the speech, “by the uncertain reaction from the White House, where press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and then President Bush himself seemed hesitant to join the vice president in his assault on Hollywood. Aides traveling with Quayle said they spent much of Wednesday morning [the day after the speech] on the telephone trying to convince colleagues in the White House that Quayle had not committed a serious blunder.”70

As for the issue of fatherlessness itself, the “Murphy Brown” episode demonstrated that while progress continued to be made in discussing it with a measure of frankness, both at the upper reaches of government and in the nation more widely, the topic remained an exceptionally tough and divisive one. It was in this context that Whitehead, in April 1993, published the most compelling popular review of the scholarly literature on absent fathers up until (and since) then. That it was titled “Dan Quayle Was Right”71 and ran in a venerable mainline magazine — The Atlantic Monthly — only showcased it better.

(X) “Dan Quayle Was Right”

Whitehead opened by offering a sampling of a “growing body of social-scientific evidence” showing that children in families disrupted by divorce and out-of-wedlock births, generally speaking, do worse than other children on various measures of well-being. For instance, 22 percent of children in one-parent families will suffer poverty during their childhoods for seven years or more versus only 2 percent for children in intact families; or that children in disrupted families are at much higher risk of physical and sexual abuse; etc. Yet despite this increasing evidence, “it is nearly impossible,” Whitehead wrote, “to discuss changes in family structure without provoking angry protest.”

Many people, she said, view such discussions as little more than attacks on single mothers and their children, while others believe that major changes in family structure, though “regrettable,” are impossible to reverse, and hence society is obliged to adapt accordingly. Such views, Whitehead acknowledged, “are not to be dismissed,” as they help to explain why family structure “is such an explosive issue for Americans.”

The debate about it is not simply about the social-scientific evidence, although that is surely an important part of the discussion. It is also a debate over deeply held and often conflicting values. How do we begin to reconcile our long-standing belief in equality and diversity with an impressive body of evidence that suggests that not all family structures produce equal outcomes for children? . . . How do we uphold the freedom of adults to pursue individual happiness in their private relationships and at the same time respond to the needs of children for stability, security, and permanence in their family lives?

This is why, she wrote (referring to the Dan Quayle-Murphy Brown altercation of a year earlier), that “every time the issue of family structure has been raised, the response has been first controversy, then retreat, and finally silence.”72

From another angle, Whitehead asked why — given the power of the evidence — had rampant family disruption not come to be viewed as a “national crisis”? Here she talked of a “shift in the social metric,” from child well-being to adult well-being. However difficult divorce and out-of-wedlock births may be, “both of these behaviors can hold out the promise of greater adult choice, freedom, and happiness.”73

Much of “Dan Quayle Was Right” is devoted to three “bold new assumptions” about family change that Whitehead argued took hold in the 1970s — but which subsequent research has refuted.

  • First assumption: Women are now financially able to be mothers without being wives.
  • Second assumption: Family disruption does not cause lasting harm to children — in fact, it can actually enrich their lives.
  • Third assumption: Such new family forms and “diversity” will make America a better place.

Her key summarizing paragraph is worth quoting at length:

Not a single one of the assumptions underlying [the view that such family change has led to social progress] can be sustained against the empirical evidence. Single-parent families are not able to do well economically on a mother’s income. In fact, most teeter on the economic brink, and many fall into poverty and welfare dependency. Growing up in a disrupted family does not enrich a child’s life or expand the number of adults committed to the child’s well-being. In fact disrupted families threaten the psychological well-being of children and diminish the investment of adult time and money in them. Family diversity in the form of increasing numbers of single-parent and stepparent families does not strengthen the social fabric. It dramatically weakens and undermines society, placing new burdens on schools, courts, prisons, and the welfare system.74

Whitehead’s frequently cited essay increased popular understanding of father absence. It also modestly defused the subject, making it a fitter one for public conversation in the first place. But maybe most beneficially, “Dan Quayle Was Right” made it more difficult for those who professionally should know better — academics, journalists, politicians — to plead continued ignorance about the demonstrated effects of fatherlessness.

(XI) “The Coming White Underclass”

Yet if it was Whitehead who succeeded in further showing that the problem posed by father absence confronting the United States in the early 1990s was real and large, it was Charles Murray who most dramatically encapsulated just how immense it really was. “Every once in a while,” he wrote (in what was described as “the most faxed op-ed of the year”), the “sky really is falling, and this seems to be the case with the latest national figures on illegitimacy.”75

Writing in the fall of 1993, and using data which had just been made available, he noted that 1.2 million American children had been born out of wedlock in 1991, which was “within a hair” of 30 percent of all live births. Out-of-wedlock births to Black women, he reported, had reached 68 percent in 1991, with the figure “typically” in excess of 80 percent in inner cities.

“But the Black story, however dismaying,” Murray wrote, “is old news. The trend that threatens the U.S. is white illegitimacy. Matters have not yet gotten out of hand, but they are on the brink. If we want to act, now is the time.”

More than 700,000 babies, he wrote, were born to single white women in 1991, representing 22 percent of all white births. (Recall that the out-of-wedlock birth rate reported by Moynihan for Black women less than 30 years earlier, in 1963, was just over 23 percent.) Murray argued that “elite wisdom” held that this trend in white births was cutting across social classes, “as if the increase in Murphy Browns were pushing the trendline.” But such a view was inaccurate, he said. Instead, women with college degrees contributed only 4 percent of white nonmarital births, while women with high school educations or less contributed 82 percent. Likewise, women with family incomes of $75,000 or more contributed but 1 percent of out-of-wedlock births, while women with family incomes under $20,000 contributed 69 percent of them.

“White illegitimacy,” Murray wrote, “is overwhelmingly a lower-class phenomenon,” which “brings us to the emergence of a white underclass” — something that the United States has never had.

Why, exactly, did he see this as a huge problem?

As the spatial concentration of illegitimacy reaches critical mass, we should expect the deterioration to be as fast among low-income whites in the 1990s as it was among low-income Blacks in the 1960s. My proposition is that illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time — more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness because it drives everything else.

While acknowledging that the “steep climb” in Black nonmarital births had been “calamitous” for African-Americans, he said that the “brutal truth is that American society as a whole could survive when illegitimacy became epidemic within a relatively small ethnic community.”76 The nation as a whole, he concluded, could not survive “the same epidemic among whites.”

As one might expect, this warning made an impression. And as a sign that Americans were increasingly prepared to address the problem of fatherlessness, Murray subsequently reported that the piece had not led critics to vilify him in the way he thought they might — as they did, for instance, after Losing Ground, and as they would again after The
Bell Curve. 
Instead, he was interviewed a lot and invited to speak frequently.

Also making an impression, as noted earlier, were Murray’s recommendations, including his proposal to “end all [governmental] economic support for single mothers.” We will turn to these recommendations in the Conclusion.

(XII) Fatherless America

If Murray’s “The Coming White Underclass” was unusually pointed, David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, published earlier this year [1995], is unusually nuanced.77 Blankenhorn does not deal with questions out-of-wedlock births, divorce, separation, desertion and such narrowly. Instead, he discusses the ways in which the very idea of fatherhood in the United States has been deconstructed (which, is to say, emasculated) as a cultural fact and principle. He writes, for example:

Men in general, and fathers in particular, are increasingly viewed as superfluous to family life: either expendable or as part of the problem. Masculinity itself, understood as anything other than a rejection of what it has traditionally meant to be male, is typically treated with suspicion and even hostility in our cultural discourse. Consequently, our society is now manifestly unable to sustain, or even find reason to believe in, fatherhood as a distinctive domain of male activity.78

Does every child deserve a father?, Blankenhorn says our current answer “hovers” someplace between “no” and “not necessarily.”79 In contrast, he describes the length to which Washington tried not to draft men with children during World War II, as it was commonly understood 50 years ago that fathers were, in fact, very important in the lives of their sons and daughters.

Making a similar point statistically, Blankenhorn says that while the “principal” cause of fatherlessness is now “paternal choice,” at the turn of the century, middle-aged widowed men surpassed middle-aged divorced men by more than 20 to 1.80

In dissecting America’s new “cultural script,” Blankenhorn writes of “Old Fathers,” “New Fathers,” “Deadbeat Dads,” “Visiting Fathers,” and “Nearby Guys,” among other variations on a diminished theme. Or as summarized by Chester E. Finn, Jr., Blankenhorn investigates “how our contemporary obsessions with widening individual rights, pursuing pleasure, rejecting authority, defying tradition, mocking institutions, relativizing values, diminishing religion, and sloughing off responsibility have conspired to weaken the family and devalue fatherhood.”81

In language akin to Murray’s, Blankenhorn contends: “The most urgent domestic challenge facing the United States at the close of the twentieth century, is the re-creation of fatherhood as a vital social role for men. At stake is nothing less than the success of the American experiment. For unless,” he writes,

we reverse the trend of fatherlessness, no other set of accomplishments — not economic growth or prison construction or welfare reform or better schools — will succeed in arresting the decline of child well-being and the spread of male violence. To tolerate the trend of fatherlessness is to accept the inevitability of continued societal recession.82

To complete the 30-year cycle, if you will, compare Blankenhorn’s strictures with Moynihan’s 1965 warning: “[A] community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos.”83

Similar as the two monitions are, they are separated by three decades in which politicians, academics, journalists and other elites made reluctant progress in recognizing that which has been painfully true about fatherlessness all along. Which is another way of saying that while Blankenhorn is correct in describing “fatherhood” as a still-abridged cultural idea, that’s not to say that father absence as a sociological and psychological calamity is now dismissed as quickly as it has been over most of the period.84 Or in the words of this paper’s title, the advance — halting as it has been — nevertheless has been real, from Moynihan to “my goodness,” as empirical evidence and everyday experience have grown prodigious.

(XIII) Conclusion

Another way of making this last point is to acknowledge that with any complex social phenomenon, one can find almost whatever patterns and anomalies one seeks to find. By definition, in other words, the patterns and interpretations traced in a paper like this are fair game for challenge. I would hope, however, most readers would find the judgments of this essay — while animated by a definite point of view — to be fair and reasonable. What of solutions to rampant father absence? This paper has had little to say about them so far.

Back in Part III, if one recalls, I introduced the three main approaches which have developed over the last generation for making sense of family disintegration: The economic frame, best associated with William Julius Wilson 85 ; the policy frame, best associated with Charles Murray; and the cultural tack, best associated with the likes of William Bennett, David Blankenhorn and Glenn Loury. One could also add writer Myron Magnet here. Each approach comes with a package of “solutions” (or at least angles of attack), none of which engender more than modest confidence that they might actually work or that they may be politically feasible in the first place.

Wilson, for instance, argues that the problems of the “ghetto underclass” can be best addressed by a “comprehensive program that combines employment policies with social welfare policies and that features universal as opposed to race- or group-specific strategies.” More specifically, he urges tight labor markets and economic growth; fiscal and monetary policy to increase the competitiveness of American goods; and a “national labor-market strategy to make the labor force more adaptable to changing economic opportunities.”86

With all due respect to Professor Wilson, who is one of the nation’s great sociologists, this is akin to what government already does, perhaps just marginally more so. There is virtually no reason to believe that such a policy course would make significant numbers of men newly “marriageable” in the eyes of significant numbers of women. And at any rate, Wilson’s analysis and prescription have little bearing on fatherlessness in middle-class and more affluent populations.

The problem with Murray’s recommendations is not that they are puny, but that they are the opposite, making them politically untenable — at least for now.

“To restore the rewards and penalties of marriage,” Murray writes, “does not require social engineering. Rather, it requires that the state stop interfering with the natural forces that have done the job quite effectively for millennia.”87 This entails, he continues, restoring economic penalties to single parenthood. This translates, in turn, “into the first and central policy prescription: to end all economic support for single mothers,” which is to say AFDC, subsidized housing, food stamps, etc. (though not medical care for children themselves).

“How does a poor young mother survive without government support?” Murray asks. “The same way she has since time immemorial. If she wants to keep a child, she must enlist support from her parents, boyfriend, siblings, neighbors, church or philanthropies.” The objectives of this change are three, Murray writes.

First, enlisting the help of others increases the likelihood of “other mature adults” involving themselves in raising the child.

Second, “We need to raise the probability that a young single woman who keeps her child is doing so volitionally and thoughtfully. Forcing her to find a way of supporting the child does this.”

The third objective is to regenerate stigma. The pressure on relatives and others to pay for the “folly of their children” will make out-of-wedlock births the “socially horrific” act they used to be, and “getting a girl pregnant” something that boys do at the risk of a shotgun. “Stigma and shotgun marriages,” Murray writes, “may or may not be good for those on the receiving end, but their deterrent effect on others is wonderful — and indispensable.”

Murray goes on to urge reforms such as making adoption more possible, spending more “lavishly” on orphanages, and “once again” making marriage “the sole legal institution through which parental rights and responsibilities are defined and exercised.” But his core recommendation is the cutting off of public financial support for single mothers, an idea whose political time has not yet arrived.

Finally, the problem with Blankenhorn’s proposals is that, as a culturalist, he commands no effective levers for changing much of anything decisively or quickly, as the “culture” — by definition — is everywhere and elusive.

Blankenhorn concludes Fatherless America with a dozen recommendations, ranging from every man in the United States signing a pro-fatherhood pledge; to the president of the United States issuing an annual report on the state of fatherhood nationally; to building a “broad new populist movement to empower families and strengthen community life”; to ending marriage disincentives in public housing; to regulating sperm banks.88 Fine ideas perhaps, but collectively they make up no more than a germ of counterrevolution.

(My own stock answer to what might work to rebuild families is more impalpable still. “Nothing will get better,” I usually predict with dark metaphysical and theological flair, “until more people grab their heads and say, ‘My God, we can’t keep committing suicide anymore.’” But, then, again — and with a bow to Loury — I really don’t know of a potentially more potent answer.)

Two final points.

First, it’s a fair criticism to charge that middle-class (formerly divorced) observers like myself are generally more apt to focus on out-of-wedlock births rather than on divorce when writing about father absence. This, even though, there are many more ‘visiting fathers’ than welfare mothers.89 I don’t doubt that this paper may be guilty in this way.

And last, something doubtless can be learned from the fact that while Dan Quayle is no longer vice president of the United States, “Murphy Brown” is still a top-rated comedy show. Yes, I’ve suggested that rank-and-file Americans are more inclined than elites to stress cultural values and spiritual notions, as well as less inclined to swallow politically correct lines about “evolving” families and the like. Paraphrasing Blankenhorn, they are less likely to view fathers as interchangeable parts.

But the uncomfortable truth is that Candace Bergen, the actress who plays Murphy Brown, seemed to finish 1992 with almost as many commercial endorsements as Quayle got votes, and she has continued apace. Surely, one ought not read too much into this tidbit of popular culture, but it is a superb reflection of the many minds with which Americans of all stations view fatherlessness.

1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Vital Statistics of the United States, 1991, Volume 1, Natality (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1993). Wade F. Horn, Father Facts (Lancaster, PA: The National Fatherhood Initiative, 1995), p. iii.

2 David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 19.

3Father Facts.

4 Alisa Burns, “Mother Headed Families: An International Perspective and the Case of Australia,” Social Policy Report 6 (Spring 1992). This citation, as well as a number of others over the next several pages, can be found in the aforementioned Father Facts (p. 3). This new report by Horn may well be the best such up-to-date collection available.

5 Quoted by Richard Louv, in “Two Debates are Raging on Family,” San Diego Union Tribune, February 22, 1992.

6 For example, the kinds of arguments made by Stephanie Coontz in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992).

7 For the sake of bibiliographic simplicity, all of the data in this section can be found in Father Facts, although original sources also are cited each time. My great thanks to Dr. Horn and his colleagues for this superb compilation.

8 U.S. Congress, Committee on Ways and Means, The Green Book (Washington, DC, 1993); see also U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, “Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1993,” by Arlene Saluter, Current Population Reports: Population Characteristics P20-478 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, May 1994).

9 Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. and Christine Winquist Nord, “Parenting Apart: Patterns of Child Rearing After Marital Disruption,” Journal of Marriage and the Family (November 1985), p. 896.

10 Father Facts, p. iii.

11 Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. and Julien O. Teitler, “Reconsidering the Effects of Marital Disruption: What Happens to Children of Divorce in Early Adulthood?” Journal of Family Issues 15 (1994), pp. 173-90.

12 Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” The Atlantic Monthly (April 1993), pp. 47-48; see also Nicholas Zill and Carolyn C. Rogers, “Recent Trends in the Well-Being of Children in the United States and Their Implications for Public Policy,” in Andrew J. Cherlin, ed., The Changing American Family and Public Policy (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 1988).

13 Jayne Garrison, “Seminar Summary: Sexuality, Poverty, and the Inner City” (Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 1994).

14 Cited in Garfinkel and McLanahan, Single Mothers and Their Children.

15 Nicholas Davidson, “Life Without Father,” Policy Review (1990); see also Karl Zinsmeister, “Crime is Terrorizing Our Nation’s Kids,” Citizen (Pomona, CA: Focus on the Family, August 20, 1990), p. 12.

16 Allen Beck, Susan Kline, and Lawrence Greenfield, Survey of Youth in Custody, 1987, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, September 1988.

17 Dewey Cornell, et al. “Characteristics of Adolescents Charged with Homicide,” Behavioral Sciences and the Law 5 (1987), pp. 11-23.

18 Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Family Matters: The Plight of America’s Children,” The Christian Century (July 1993), pp. 14-21.

19 Ibid.

20 Selwyn M. Smith, Ruth Hanson, and Sheila Noble, “Social Aspects of the Battered Baby Syndrome,” in Joanne V. Cook and Roy T. Bowles (eds.) Child Abuse: Commission and Omission (Toronto: Butterworths, 1980), pp. 217-20.

21 Nicholas Ebe

rstadt, “America’s Infant Mortality Puzze,” The Public Interest (Summer 1992).

22 Louis W. Sullivan, Secretary of Health of Human Services, 1992.

23 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics, Survey on Child Health (Washington, DC. 1993).

2 4 U.S. Congress, Committee on Ways and Means, The Green Book. And U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, “Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1993.”

25 Glenn Loury has written: “Those committed to the silencing of Moynihan, and to the banishment of the topic of behavioral pathology in the ghetto from public discussion, managed to have their way. A dear price was paid for this indulgence, although it was not paid by those responsible for it.” One by One from the Inside Out (New York: Free Press, 1995), p. 257.

26 I am indebted, as I was more than 15 years ago when I first wrote about this subject, to The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, by Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey (Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1967). This analysis of aftereffects, published two years after the Moynihan Report was released, also contains a full copy of the report itself: The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington: DC: Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor, March 1965).

27 The Negro Family, p. 5.

28 The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, pp. 27-28.

29 The Negro Family, p. 18.

30 Ibid., p. 8.

31 For example, psychologist Kenneth Clark, whose work had been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1954 Brown decision outlawing officially segregated schools, said: “It’s kind of a wolf pack operating in a very undignified way. If Pat is a racist, I am. He highlights the total pattern of segregation and discrimination. Is a doctor responsible for a disease simply because he diagnoses it?” The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, p. 263.

32 Ibid., pp., 153-54.

33 Ibid., pp. 197-98.

34 Ibid., p. 199.

35 While many civil rights and other liberal leaders strongly disliked the Moynihan Report, they were greatly enthused about a speech given by President Johnson on racial issues at a Howard University commencement that same spring. Yet not only were many of the ideas in the speech the same as in the report, Moynihan was one of the two principal writers of the speech. It would be glib — but not entirely — to say the difference was all in terms of respective set-ups and deliveries.

36 Daniel P. Moynihan, “A Family Policy for the Nation,” America (September 18, 1965).

37 For example, see William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

38 For example, see Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984); David Frum, Dead Right (New York: Basic Books, 1994); and George Gilder, “End Welfare Reform as We Know It,” The American Spectator, June 1995, pp. 24-27.

39 For example, see William J. Bennett, The Devaluing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children (New York: Summit Books, 1992); David Blankenhorn’s previously mentioned Fatherless America; and several things by Glenn C. Loury, including: The previously cited One by One from the Inside Out; and “Ghetto Poverty and the Power of Faith,” Center of the American Experiment,” Minneapolis, MN, December 1993. See also, Myron Magnet, The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties Legacy to the Underclass (New York: William Morrow, 1993). Regarding Blankenhorn’s chairmanship of the National Fatherhood Inititative, a good case can be made that the 1994 creation of this new Pennsylvania-based organization — which is “dedicated to the restoration of responsible fathering” — ought to be included among the milepost events featured in this paper.

40 Glenn C. Loury, testimony before the Human Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee, Washington, DC, January 20, 1995.

41 President Carter did convene a “White House Conference on Families” in 1980, but in the words of Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “The result was a prolonged, publicly subsidized quarrel over the definition of ‘family.’ No President since has tried to hold a national family conference.” “Dan Quayle Was Right,” p. 48.

42 By no stretch is this is to say that everything, for example, about feminism and heightened Black consciousness was destructive. It is to say that the more fervent manifestations of these social currents were very much a problem, and remain so. For example, see Richard Bernstein’s superor critique, Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).

43 “Dan Quayle Was Right,” p. 61.

44 “Families headed by single women with children are the poorest of all major demographic groups regardless of how poverty is measured.” Irwin Garfinkel and Sara S. McLanahan, Single Mothers and Their Children: A New American Dilemma , p. 11.

45 For example, this is what Barbara G. Cashion wrote, almost sunnily, in 1982: “The two-parent family is hierarchical with mother and father playing powerful roles and children playing subordinate roles. In the female-headed family there is no such division. Women and children forgo much of the hierarchy and share more in their relationships. . . . Single mothers report that they enjoy their ability to set norms and make decisions about time schedules and routines that suit their own and their children’s needs. There is general lack of conflict, and decisions are made more easily and quickly, provided resources are adequate.” Barbara G. Cashion, “Female-Headed Families: Effects on Children and Clinical Implications,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 8, no. 2, April 1982, p. 80. David Blankenhorn calls Cashion’s qualifier, “provided resources are adequate,” an “inspired touch.”

46 Losing Ground, pp. 154-55.

47 Ibid., pp. 160-61.

48 One such critic (all things considered, an exceptionally moderate one) wrote: “The intellectual establishment, particularly the liberal intellectual establishment, has been quick to criticize Murray’s work, and these attacks have cast considerable doubt on the credibility of his conclusions. But what is often missed in this frenzy is that although Murray is almost certainly wrong in blaming the social welfare system for a large part of the predicament of the poor, he is almost certainly correct in stating that welfare does not reflect or reinforce out most basic values. He is also correct in stating that no amount of tinkering with benefit levels or work rules will change that.” David T. Ellwood, Poor Support: Poverty in the American Family (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 6. Murray is also coauthor (with the late Richard Herrnstein) of the very controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press).

49 The documentary aired January 25, 1986, on CBS.

< sup>50 The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy, p. 376. Rainwater and Yancey describe Moyers on the same page as Johnson’s “chief policy factotum.”

51 Michael Novak, “The Content of Their Character,” National Review, February 28, 1986, p. 47.

52 In an essay analyzing the socialization of young Black men in light of America’s history of slavery and discrimination, sociologist Orlando Patterson sums up this way with brutal directness: “This, then, is what we have inherited: a lower class with gender attitudes and behaviors that are emotionally and socially brutalizing and physically self-destructive. The posturing, pathological narcissism of ‘cool pose’ masculinity with its predatory, antimaternal sexuality, self-healing addictions, and murderous, self-loathing displacements; the daily and nightly carnage on the streets of the inner cities; the grim statistics on child and spousal abuse, rape, poverty, illiteracy, and suicide — these are the gruesome manifestations of this historically, sociologically, and psychologically engendered tragedy.” “Blacklash: The Crisis of Gender Relations Among African-Americans,” Transition, No. 62, 1993, p. 25.

53 “Bill Moyers Examines the Black Family,” Newsweek, January 27, 1986, p. 58. 54 Chester E. Finn, Jr., “Ten Tentative Truths,” Center of the American Experiment, Minneapolis, MN, June 1990, p. 5.

55 William A. Galston, “A Liberal-Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family,” The Responsive Community, Winter 1990-91, p. 14.

56 Elaine C. Kamarck and William A. Galston, “Putting Children First: A Progressive Family Policy for the 1990’s,” Progressive Policy Institute, Washington, DC, 1990.

57 Galston was a leader of the Progressive Policy Institute. The Washington-based PPI might best be described as a “neoliberal” think tank associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, the group of moderate Democratic politicians formerly led by Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Galston served as deputy assistant to the president from the beginning of Mr. Clinton’s administration in January 1993 until May 1995, when he returned to the University of Maryland for family reasons of his own (i.e., he wanted to spend more time with his wife and son).

58 “A Liberal-Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family,” pp. 16-17.

59 As argued, I would expand this reference to read both the 1980s and 1970s.

6 0 Ibid., p. 17. This is how Rutgers University sociologist David Popenoe put it in a 1992 op-ed: “Of course, social science research is almost never conclusive. There are always methodological difficulties and stones left unturned. Yet in three decades of work as a social scientist, I know of few other bodies of data in which the weight of evidence is so decisively on one side of the issue: on the whole, for children, two-parent families are preferable to single-parent families and stepfamilies. . . . Sure nontradtional families can be successful, and they deserve our support. But here is what social scientists call a confirmed empirical generalization: these families are not as successful as conventional two-parent families. What further confirmation? Ask any child which kind of family he or she prefers.” “The Controversial Truth: Two Parent Families Are Better,” New York Times, December 26, 1992, p. 21.

61 “A Liberal -Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family,” p. 18.

62 Ibid., p. 20.

63 Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families: Final Report of the National Commission on Children (summary), (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991), p. 18. The commission was established by Public Law 100-203 “to serve as a forum on behalf of the children of the nation.” Its 34 bipartisan members were appointed by the president, the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

64 Ibid.

65 Ibid.

66 While I’ve come to understand that members of the Rockefeller commission never actually talked about the Kamarck-Galston paper during their meetings, according to one source, the paper was nevertheless very useful in persuading the panel’s majority of liberal members to subscribe to its thesis precisely because its messengers were not conservative. The commission’s staff, moreover, borrowed freely from “Putting Children First” in drafting the final report. A case also can be made that Chairman Rockefeller put unusual pressure on commission members to reach unanimity insofar as we was thinking about running for president in 1992 and he saw such across-the-board agreement as helpful. Even so, the report’s two-parent language was a major departure for a federal document. A final note: Then-Gov. Bill Clinton was a member of the commission, though he may never have attended any of its meetings from 1989 to 1991.

67 Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “What is Murphy Brown Saying?” The Washington Post, May 10, 1992.

68 Vice President Dan Quayle, remarks delivered in San Francisco to the Commonwealth Club of California, May 19, 1992.

69 The Wall Street Journal editorialized: “The day-after press coverage of the Vice President’s speech was remarkably tendentious, even by current standards.” May 21, 1992.

70 John E. Yang, “Quayle Sums Up Trip: ‘It Worked Out Well,” The Washington Post, May 22, 1992. As witness Senate Majority Leader (and presidential candidate) Bob Dole’s recent criticism of the popular culture, politicians are less nervous about blasting Hollywood than they were a short time ago. Much of this credit goes to film critic Michael Medved and his 1992 breakthrough book, Hollywood Vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (HarperCollins). Of interest, Medved, an observant Jew, frequently has been ridiculed and dismissed as a “right-wing Christian.”

71 “Dan Quayle Was Right,” pp. 47-84.

72 Ibid., p. 48.

73 Ibid., p. 52.

74 Ibid., pp. 60; 79-80

75 “The Coming White Underclass.” Syndicated columnist Suzanne Fields described Murray’s column as the “most faxed op-ed of the year” in a speech, in Minneapolis, sponsored by Center of the American Experiment, June 9, 1994.

76 Blacks comprised 12.4 percent of the U.S. population in 1991. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1993: The National Data Book (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1993), p. 14.

77 For a much briefer treatment of Blankenhorn’s argument, see his oral essay, “Fatherless America,” Center of the American Experiment, Minneapolis, MN, April 1993.

78 Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem., p. 2.

79 Ibid., p. 222.

80 Ibid., p. 22.

81 Chester E. Finn, Jr., “Where’s Dad?” Commentary, April 1995, p. 60.

82 Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, p. 222

83 “A Family Policy for the Nation.”

84 This most certainly is not to say that in my own public speaking, for example, that this message is received equally well, say, by Rotarians and college students. The form

er understand and appreciate it nearly unanimously. I’ve known the latter to do so only occasionally. (Or more precisely, students have seen fit to agree with me — publicly in class — only occasionally.) Likewise, Blankenhorn notes that when Hennepin County commissioners, in my hometown of Minneapolis, proposed a vision statement in 1994 which urged a community in which “healthy family structure is nurtured and fewer children are born out of wedlock,” vocal “local leaders” described the notion as “exclusionary,” “judgmental,” “intolerant,” “offensive,” “stigmatizing,” “degrading,” and “archaic.” Fatherless America, p. 232. To say that candor and courage on the topic have increased is not to say than candor and courage now rule the day. Or that ideologically grounded wishful thinking doesn’t remain powerfully inhibiting.

85 Orlando Patterson cites research which argues that changing employment prospects for Black men can explain only 20 percent of the decline in marriage rates for them. “Blacklash,” p. 19.

86 The Truly Disadvantaged, p. 163.

87 “The Coming White Underclass.”

88 Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem, pp. 225-34

89 “Where’s Dad?” p. 62. Having said this, Douglas J. Besharov has written: “While in 1969 there was a substantial number of widows on welfare, the mothers of the majority of children were divorced. At most, about 35 or 40 percent were the children of what the Census Bureau calls ‘never-married’ mothers; that is, mothers who had their first baby out of wedlock and never married afterward (to either the father or another man). Today, the figures are reversed. The majority of children on welfare now have ‘never-married’ mothers.” Douglas J. Besharov, “Teen Sex, Welfare Reform, and the Politicians,” Center of the American Experiment, Minneapolis, MN, January 1995, p. 5.