Legitimacy, At Last3
The existential issue for those people was how to get by from one day to the next, and to the extent that one could do so, post '60s welfare was crucial in making the two-parent family an oddity in black inner cities. This is clear in observations that Patterson presents in passing, such as that state-level experiments in the late '60s with income guarantees for single mothers discouraged them from seeking work; or that in the “Vanishing Family” television documentary in 1986, America watched a sensible black mother on welfare casually say that welfare made it easy to have kids.
As such, the refashioning of AFDC in 1996 into a five-year program with required job training was the most important event in black American history between the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the election of Barack Obama. In that light, Patterson is too saturnine about the Moynihan’s report’s legacy. By 2004 the welfare rolls had gone down by two-thirds, and contrary to fears that people off the rolls would starve or languish in squalor (Moynihan was among those who thought they would), black childhood poverty went down to 30 percent from 41 percent, and ex-recipients have regularly reported greater self-esteem and are thankful for the new regime.
Welfare reform has made little impact on single motherhood so far, and most ex-recipients are still poor–but their children watch them go to work every day. That matters; and Moynihan’s report had much to do with making it happen, despite its author’s opposition to the eventual policy change. Bill Cosby’s testy speeches notwithstanding, no one of influence today is any longer purporting that ghetto teen pregnancy is a manifestation of communal strength traceable to the era of slavery. Nor, despite Patterson’s dim view of the current debate over the black family, does the typical modern Republican call for discontinuing welfare entirely.
That is, the Moynihan report’s call for establishing black equality in addition to liberty became, after the dust settled, part of America’s DNA. America in the age of Obama, with the Second Chance Act assisting ex-cons and No Child Left Behind refashioned rather than abolished, shows no signs of giving up on what Patterson’s subtitle terms the “struggle over black family life.” Patterson’s impression that Moynihan’s legacy has been a mere argumentational holding-pattern, a token in a stalled debate, is not historically accurate. Since the time when a report like Moynihan’s was big news, we may have a long way to go—but we’ve come a long way too.