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The American Dream in Crisis: It’s Time for a New Moynihan Moment

Public Discourse | November 23, 2015 | Ben Peterson

The American Dream is in crisis because the American family is in crisis. We must commit to a national—not purely governmental—effort to promote strong families.

The American Dream is about equality of opportunity. It includes the belief that a person can rise from any station in life to success and the idea that artificial barriers tied to race, class, or gender need not—must not—stand in the way of climbing the commercial, social, or political ladder. Yet today, despite massive federal investments in a national public education system, social security, welfare, and expanded public health insurance, a class line paralleling W.E.B. Du Bois’s “color line” is solidifying.

The new class line is the theme of esteemed political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s latest bestseller, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam’s book struck a nerve because it puts the crisis of the American dream into focus: a majority of Americans see economic mobility as a possibility only for the already wealthy, and Republicans and Democrats alike recognize the serious problem of income inequality. Putnam spoke at two high-profile conferences this year, one at Georgetown University with President Obama and Arthur Brooks, and another at the American Enterprise Institute, where Brooks is president.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan sought to address a similar crisis. In his controversial report for the U.S. Department of Labor, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” he raised concerns about “deterioration of the Negro family” in poor, black communities. After a long saga of denial and allegations of “blaming the victim,” sociologists and policy analysts increasingly recognize the merit of his warning that family breakdown resulting from the legacy of slavery would prevent many black communities from securing equal opportunities and taking advantage of political gains from the Civil Rights Movement. As William Julius Wilson and Orlando Patterson have observed, the problem has intensified in poor, black communities. Wilson called the report “prophetic” in its analysis of both structural and cultural factors threatening to perpetuate cycles of poverty.

Today, we find ourselves in a new Moynihan Moment. We need a new prophet to sound the alarm about family breakdown in poor communities of all races, which threatens to perpetuate cycles of poverty and deepen the divide between socioeconomic classes. It’s time that America’s public and political elites alike acknowledge that the crisis of the American Dream is a result of the underlying crisis of the American family.

The American Family in Crisis

The work of Robert Putnam is helpful in analyzing and diagnosing the problems facing the American family, but the solutions he proposes are disappointing and likely to be ineffective. Putnam recognizes family breakdown as a core issue driving the opportunity gap: “More single parents means less upward mobility.” He shows that divorce, cohabitation, and nonmarital births are concentrated among poorly educated, low-income families. Putnam clearly sees that this “two-tier” family structure defines and perpetuates the class line, yet he is unwilling to the accept the common sense proposition that efforts to address socioeconomic problems should, per Moynihan, address “the fundamental problem . . . of family structure.”

To his credit, Putnam does suggest preserving and expanding existing tax credits for families with kids, making more day-care services available to struggling parents, and reforming criminal justice policies that disproportionately impact minority families. Still, Putnam’s main recommendation on the family aligns with those seeking to “limit the consequences of negative norms” by increasing access to effective, long-acting contraceptive devices to fully “delink sex from childbearing,” encouraging women to delay motherhood.

He draws heavily but selectively from the work of Sara McLanahan, a principal investigator for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. For instance, he avoids discussing her point that, “along with giving women the ability to control their fertility, the pill and legalized abortion made it easier for men to shirk their paternal responsibilities.” Why would Putnam’s proposal yield different results? How would it address the fact that fatherhood has become, in his wording, “optional”? Even granted that government-provided long-acting contraception could help a woman delay motherhood—until when? Presumably until she finds a stable partner willing and able to shoulder the responsibilities of a husband and father.

In the end, we are left with the same underlying problem: committed, stable marriages are increasingly rare commodities, especially in poor communities. Putnam’s proposals may help some families, but they are nowhere near adequate to addressing the larger problem of family inequality driving the opportunity gap.

The New Moynihan Moment

The debate continues to rage about the Moynihan Report’s applicability and implications for poor black communities. More critical is the realization that Moynihan’s warning is more relevant today, for more people, than it was in 1965 at the outset of the War on Poverty. We have to think like Moynihan. He based his warning on a fundamental insight about civic life that Putnam’s research confirms:

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 fretted that 23.6 percent of births to black women were non-marital; the national figure for 2013 was 40.6 percent, a slight decline from the 2009 peak of 41 percent. The family deterioration Moynihan identified now describes a large segment of the country and spans racial divides. Our Moynihan Moment calls for the kind of “national effort” he proposed, a much more significant undertaking than increasing the availability of birth control. We must commit to a national—not purely governmental—effort to promote strong families.

To paraphrase Moynihan, such an effort would aim to bring all Americans to full and equal sharing in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship. To achieve this end, all programs seeking to mitigate the opportunity gap should be designed to have the effect of enhancing the stability and resources of the American family.

The American Dream vs. the American Project

Moynihan proposed a national effort to combat family breakdown in black communities. Yet he also famously remarked: “If you think a government program can restore marriage, you know more about the government than I do.” At least one major Health and Human Services-sponsored program designed to encourage family formation for new parents helped in some cities but had the opposite impact in others. Clearly, government alone cannot restore a vibrant family culture.

An older view emphasizes the reverse: free society and government actually depend on strong families. Charles Murray makes this point in his 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010: “The founders took for granted that marriage was the bedrock institution of society.” Putnam is trying to save the American Dream; Murray wants to save the “American Project.” Not antithetical to the Dream’s egalitarianism, the Project is to build a society where each person has the greatest possible freedom to do as he or she wishes in life—and the responsibility to accept the consequences.

This brings Murray to the idea of virtue. In a reversal of Adam Smith’s claim that the poor tend to adopt stricter codes of religious practice and personal ethics than the wealthy, Murray argues that the solidifying class structure stems from disparate practice of what he calls “the founding virtues,” the first of which is marital fidelity. Putnam tends to deny the agency of those in the lowest socio-economic bracket, emphasizing impersonal “economic disparities” and “malign influences” that hold them back. By contrast, Murray argues that many communities have ceased to cultivate habits and practices that once helped poor families survive and advance: chiefly getting and staying married to provide stable homes for their kids.

The Economic Angle

Murray has predictably taken heat from both left and right for “blaming the victim,” and failing to disprove that family and community breakdown are results rather than causes of structural economic downturn.

No doubt, there is an economic angle here. Losses of manufacturing jobs and recessions, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s, made marriage a difficult prospect for many low-wage earners. But Putnam notes that during the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in American history, non-marital births remained negligible, even as marriage rates declined. Further, some evidence from the Fragile Families study shows that fathers who marry after a child’s birth—typically lower income than those already married—tend to earn higher incomes after marriage. This supports the view that, even from a purely economic angle, encouraging marriage and stable family formation is a best practice.

Structural economic factors alone do not explain the rise in nonmarital births and fragile families. A dramatic cultural shift in family structure beginning in the 1960s has proceeded steadily, independent of the boom-and-bust economic cycle, compounding low-income families’ economic woes. A cultural problem, albeit with an economic angle, demands a cultural response: to rebuild the American Dream, we need to rebuild a culture that celebrates the “founding virtues” of marriage and committed family life.

Cultural revivals have happened before and can happen again, if we are willing unabashedly to champion the virtues of marital fidelity and committed family life.

Restoring the Project and the Dream

Putnam has largely accomplished his goal of framing the opportunity gap as a bipartisan, “purple” issue. Family formation ought to be equally purple.

The focus of public policy should not be the chimerical goal of creating a world where fragmented or fragile families provide equal opportunities for kids. Instead, a common-sense approach will involve creative efforts to strengthen families. This not only includes some of Putnam’s suggestions, such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and reforming the criminal justice system, but also tailored efforts like the ones the National Marriage Project and W. Bradford Wilcox and Robert I. Lerman have proposed. Leaders in government and civic institutions must make conscious efforts to remove marriage penalties from the welfare system, to help men become “marriageable” through apprenticeships and other opportunities, and to elevate marriage as a personal and social good.

In particular, we must change the way we teach sex education in public schools, especially those that serve low-income children. Right now, sex-ed is focused on avoiding teen pregnancy. That’s a worthy goal that may or may not be seeing some success, but it’s not holistic enough to communicate the way choices about family are related to economic and social success. The current approach is short-term, placing all responsibility on young women for delaying childbearing. It fails to fully awaken young people, especially young men, to the way family commitment—or lack thereof—will affect their lives and the lives of their children.

Schools should link sex with civic and family obligations, instead of merely spouting clinical information. We should give students the facts: married people tend to do better in terms of almost every measurable indicator and provide better homes for children. Your “sex life” is not only about your own plans, but also the well-being of your partner and the next generation. This is a very different message from what most students receive in public schools; yet if we’re serious about addressing the opportunity gap, it is the clear message we should send.

Like most prophets, Moynihan was ignored and attacked for pointing out the truth. If we ignore the problem, the two-tier family system will continue to plague poor Americans, obstructing opportunity and perpetuating the crisis of the American Dream. Let’s not ignore it—we’ve been warned.

Ben Peterson  a graduate of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @ben_2_long.