As I wrote in my previous essay, one of the most profound and deeply damaging impacts of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was the destruction of the family for the poor — and especially for poor African Americans.
This defines the crisis we are living through today. In many cities, crime is out-of-control crime. There is a massive underground drug economy that kills more than 100,000 Americans a year with overdoses (more annually than were killed in the eight years of the Vietnam War). Schools are overwhelmed by the collapse of parenting and teaching. In some places, entire school systems have just quit trying to educate and simply serve as temporary holding places while children grow older. These children gain no knowledge or skills, so they can’t get good jobs. They then return to neighborhoods with few legal opportunities to make a living, drive-by shootings, gang domination, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness and passivity.
This is the legacy of the profoundly wrong values and principles imposed on the poor by the Great Society.
President Ronald Reagan once said the best social program is a job. It could also be said that the key to a healthy society — rich and poor alike — is a productive and secure family structure. All the efforts at fixing education, crime, homelessness, drug addiction, and poverty focus on narrowly trying to solve each component. Yet the root of all these issues is the lack of family support systems.
The tragedy of the Great Society was that it replaced 200 years of sound social policy, that had been gradually improving the lives of virtually every American with a set of new intellectual formulas. While sounding great in an academic environment, they proved to be disastrous failures when applied to real people in the real world.
This was not inevitable.
Moynihan’s Family-Forward Solution
In the mid-1960s, the civil rights movement was finally defeating legal segregation and, thus, opening dramatic new horizons for African Americans — and a brighter, more dynamic American future. That future was captured in a remarkable 1965 study by Daniel Patrick Moynihan for the U.S. Department of Labor titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”
Moynihan focused all his concerns about poverty and creating a world of opportunity and progress on one factor: how to strengthen the family structure for poor African Americans. As a Harvard sociologist working for the Labor Department (and future ambassador to the United Nations and senator from New York), Moynihan was remarkably smart and thoughtful.
He went to great lengths to lay out the case for a new strategy to strengthen the black family.
Moynihan asserted that America needed a new national goal to strengthen black families. He pointed out that the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 was a start, but half of black families were still living in poverty. One law was not going to solve everything. (READ MORE from Newt Gingrich: The Rise of Black Power and Widespread Violence)
In his analysis, the deterioration of stable black households was a key issue leading to other problems — and one that, at the time, was totally missed or taken for granted by most of society.
“The role of the family in shaping character and ability is so pervasive as to be easily overlooked. The family is the basic social unit of American life; it is the basic socializing unit. By and large, adult conduct in society is learned as a child,” Moynihan wrote. “A fundamental insight of psychoanalytic theory, for example, is that the child learns a way of looking at life in his early years through which all later experience is viewed and which profoundly shapes his adult conduct.”
Back in 1965, Moynihan hit on something decades of research have since echoed. Children who grow up in disorganized, chaotic, or fatherless homes often do not adapt to structured systems, such as early education. They simply don’t have the early experience of structure and behavioral expectations to apply to their new environments. This often leads directly to behavioral problems, lower academic performance, social isolation, and a host of other challenges.
Further, children learn most of their social behaviors when they are young — and it becomes much harder to learn new or different behaviors as they develop into adolescents, teenagers, and young adults. By that time, students would be exiting high school and beginning their adult lives. A typical child in this scenario would be totally unprepared to seek further education, find a job, or be an otherwise productive citizen.
Interestingly, Moynihan also observed (citing research at the time) that a stable home life better prepared young black children to cope with and counteract the destructive effects of racism. Remember, this is shortly after segregation was officially ended (although discrimination was still practiced in parts of the country). Moynihan wrote:
The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business….
The policy of the United States is to bring the Negro American to full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship. To this end, the programs of the Federal government bearing on this objective shall be designed to have the effect, directly or indirectly, of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American family.
Tragically, the 1965 publication of Moynihan’s report came at the end of the classic era of work, merit, and achievement, family-centered values that had made America grow for more than two centuries. A revolution in social thought was coming. It led to technocratic policies that, exactly like their technocratic parallels by the same elites in Vietnam, would fail, with enormous human and financial costs.
Social Policy Changes Overnight
Charles Murray, in his landmark study Losing Ground, captured the remarkable moment of revolutionary change that turned public policy from two centuries of success toward a set of radical ideas that we now know have failed disastrously. We have since seen enormous human costs for the poor in general and African Americans in poverty in particular. In Murray’s analysis, there was a dramatic shift among the elites in accepted values and principles from 1964–1967, and this led America down a path with disastrous outcomes.
Murray described how fundamental ideas about improving society and social status for black Americans seemed to shift dramatically in the mid-1960s. He wrote:
The premises—the unconscious, “everybody-knows-that” premises—shifted in the minds of the people who were instrumental in making policy.… Theodore White (among many others) describes the shift from “equality of opportunity” to “equality of outcome” as a fundamental change. The sponsors of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with Hubert Humphrey in the lead, had come down adamantly on the side of equality of opportunity— the nation was to be made color-blind. The wording of the legislation itself expressly dissociated its provisions from preferential treatment. Yet only a year later, speaking at Howard University commencement exercises, Lyndon Johnson was proclaiming the “next and most profound stage of the battle for civil rights,” namely, the battle “not just [for] equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” A few months later, Executive Order 11246 required “affirmative action.” By 1967, people who opposed preferential measures for minorities to overcome the legacy of discrimination were commonly seen as foot-draggers on civil rights if not closet racists.
Many yearslong positions changed seemingly overnight. For centuries prior to 1964, it was widely agreed that people were responsible for their own lives — and for their own success. It was, for example, anathema to consider providing government assistance to people who already had jobs. But increasingly, those in the policy elite determined that if people were working and still not making ends meet, the entire system was flawed. Once that notion took hold, defense of what worked in the past went out of fashion. Perfect became the enemy of good. Murray called it the “conversion aspect.” As he put it:
Before 1964, we did not debate welfare for working people because the reasons against it were so self-evident; after 1967 we did not debate the issue because the reasons in favor of it were so self-evident. There was no great debate in the interim, no moment at which the nation could observe itself changing its national policy. The change happened unannounced. The thematic congressional debate after the mid-1960s was not whether to include the working poor in new programs, but the conditions under which they would be included.
Having described the dramatic shift in assumptions about welfare and poverty, Murray went on to explain how the new assumptions were worse than the old model. It is good to try to help people to better their lives — but only until assistance becomes more enticing than being responsible and providing for themselves. Murray likened the problem with being compassionately lenient with a 14-year-old who breaks into a house — but still being tough enough to convince the teen that burglary was a bad idea.
As Murray wrote, the post-1964 approach to welfare and work had almost immediate negative consequences. People realized they could get roughly the same amount of money not working as they would if they were working a minimum wage job. Naturally, this perverse incentive led to more people choosing government assistance over working harder and trying to get better jobs. The big problem was that the great thinkers who dreamed up the Great Society couldn’t learn from their mistakes.
“The reaction when the programs didn’t work was bewilderment and confusion: Why weren’t people responding to these wonderful opportunities the way they were supposed to?” Murray wrote. “I hope my narrative conveys how little social policy planners understood what they were up against. They had a limited body of historical examples of government social programs to draw upon, assumptions about the nature of poverty and disadvantage that were compassionate but empirically dubious, and unbounded confidence about their intellectual and managerial ability to fashion good policy.”
The Real Reasons for Teen Pregnancy
The scale of the disaster growing out of Great Society policies and the degree to which those policies were based on a false analysis of the principles required to help the poor was further captured in an astonishing book by then–Washington Post reporter Leon Dash.
Dash wrote When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Childbearing after he observed a disproportionately high rate of adolescent childbirths among black women in poverty during the 1980s. His research found startling evidence that the children of adolescents were likely to have far worse outcomes than children born to parents in their 20s. For example, those with teenage mothers were roughly three times more likely to later get arrested than were peers with older parents. Further, Dash cited research that indicated the consequences of adolescent childbearing were adding $6 billion to $9 billion to state and federal budgets each year.
What made Dash’s book so powerful was his honesty about the disconnect between all the popular academic studies of the time and the reality he observed through 17 months of interviews with young men and women in Washington Highlands. As he wrote, Dash started out assuming that the high birthrate among poor black adolescents was due to a lack of education about sex and contraception — and, perhaps, sexual exploitation of young black girls.
In his own words: “[He] was wrong on all counts.”
Dash wrote that the adolescent boys and girls in Washington Highlands knew far more about sex and contraception than he expected. They had all been through sex education classes in public school in sixth and seventh grade. In fact, after interviewing hundreds of people over the course of 17 months, Dash wrote that he “did not find one adolescent couple where both partners were ignorant about the results of sexual activity without the use of contraception.”
Further, he found that, in most cases, the females in the relationships were advocating for pregnancies. There were few instances of accidental conception.
His time in Washington Highlands led Dash to a devastating conclusion:
In time it became clear that for many girls in the poverty-stricken community of Washington Highlands, a baby is a tangible achievement in an otherwise dreary and empty future. It is one way of announcing: I am a woman. For many boys in Washington Highlands the birth of a baby represents an identical rite of passage. The boy is saying: I am a man.
The desire for a child was especially acute among adolescents who were doing poorly in school. They knew implicitly and had been told explicitly that they were not likely to graduate from high school. These were the youths, ages fifteen to seventeen and still in the seventh grade, who were at highest risk to get pregnant or father a child. While the better students strove for a diploma, the poorer students achieved their form of recognition with a baby.
Nearly six decades of massive investment and ever-growing bureaucracies have brought us to the current disaster. The Great Society’s legacy must be disbanded and replaced. More money is not the solution. We need new policies based on historically successful principles. It worked in the 1990s, and it can work again today.
But that’s the topic of another essay.
Editor’s Note: This is the nineth installment in a series by Speaker Gingrich on American despotism. Listen to The American Spectator’s exclusive interview with the Speaker here. Find the first in the series here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, the seventh here, and the eighth here. For more commentary from Newt, visit Gingrich360.com.