Forty Years Wandering
JOHN F. KIPPLEY on Moynihan’s Warning & Our Long Failure
to Heed It
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Daniel
controversial “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” In
what came to be called The Moynihan Report, the future senator, then a staffer
in Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor, described the black illegitimacy
rate as a key factor in the social problems of the poor black family.
He thus drew the ire of other social scientists who dismissed illegitimacy
as a social concern and raised the hackles of those who feared a Big Brother
government controlling the sexual activities of black people on welfare. He
also raised the fears of those who believed that the sexual behavior of mutually
consenting legal adults is of no interest to the public and who realized that
any concern with illegitimacy among black people would lead to a concern with
the public consequences of other people’s sexual behavior.
Moynihan wrote for a small audience of high-level policymakers (only 100
copies were printed), and he never intended the Report for general distribution.
However, President Johnson referred to it in a commencement address at Howard
University on June 4, 1965, and called for a White House conference on the
plight of the black family later that year, and so the Report was published
by late July. Between its publication and the start of the conference in
mid-November, Moynihan and his concerns about illegitimacy rates were so
pilloried that at a planning meeting in New York on November 9, the question
of family stability was stricken from the agenda.
In his Report, Moynihan said all the standard things about low wages,
poor education, the heritage of matriarchy imposed by American slavery,
the need for more jobs, and the need for the government to help the
economically and socially disadvantaged black man to advance to middle-class
status. But he did not stop there. He also pointed to rates of illegitimacy
and to fatherless families as important negative factors in black culture,
and he made plain his thesis that “at the heart of the deterioration
of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family.”
What were the rates that so concerned Moynihan? According to the 1963
figures then available, the black illegitimacy rate was 23.6 percent
and the rate of fatherless families was almost 25 percent, and Moynihan
believed there was a connection. Both black and white illegitimacy rates
had risen from 1940 to 1963, the white rate from 2.0 percent to 3.07 percent
and the black rate from 16.8 percent to 23.6 percent. In his Report, a
half-page illustration was labeled in all caps, “The Nonwhite Illegitimacy Ratio Is 8 Times the White Ratio,” a
good case of what he would not have done if he had intended the Report for
The result of the controversy was that his major thesis—that black cultural
acceptance of illegitimacy and fatherless families was making life more difficult
for blacks themselves—never made it to the White House Conference on
the Black Family, where the talk was confined to jobs, education, and welfare.
The Report carried no recommendations, but it contained sufficient references
to population issues to infer that part of the recommended “National
Action” would be to encourage black people to have fewer children. “One
index [explaining why middle-class blacks do well] is that middle-class Negroes
have even fewer children than middle-class whites, indicating a desire to conserve
the advances they have made and to insure that their children do as well or
better.” Some of the critics of the Report saw enough about population
in it to fear an effort at black quasi-genocide.
Government policy was set by default by an unhappy combination of Supreme
Court decisions and tax--supported birth-control programs. President
brief mention of population in his State of the Union message in January
1964 had been sufficient to stimulate would-be federal birth-control
planners to start pushing.
They had a problem, however. Some states still had the remnants of nineteenth-century
Comstock laws forbidding the distribution, sale, and use of contraceptive devices.
Not to worry. The head of Planned Parenthood in New Haven, Connecticut, Estelle
Griswold, had already filed suit against Connecticut, and on June 7, 1965 the
Supreme Court ruled that laws against the use of contraceptives by married
couples were unconstitutional.
Finding nothing specific in the Constitution against such laws, the Court invented
its doctrine of the “penumbra” of the Fourteenth Amendment, which
would have even more catastrophic effects eight years later in the Roe v. Wade
decision. In 1970, Congress passed Title X to fund the distribution of contraceptives
to all takers. In 1972, the Court ruled further in Baird v. Eisenstadt that
laws against the sale of contraceptives to the unmarried were also unconstitutional.
A year later, in Roe v. Wade, the Court struck down all state laws protecting
pre-born human life.
Those in 1965 who sought to give a black underclass all the birth control that
upper-class whites had been using—and for free!—thinking that it
would solve the problems of illegitimacy, could scarcely have thought that
their dreams would come true in less than five years. Nor could they have envisioned
that easy access to abortion would be added to the birth control arsenal in
less than a decade. But what they really could not have dreamed was that the
effects of these “benefits” would be the opposite of what they
The Statistical Abstract of the United States tells the story. From 26.3 percent
in 1965, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births to black mothers grew steadily:
to 38 percent in 1970, 55 percent in 1980, 67 percent in 1990, and 69 percent
in 2000. The white illegitimacy rate also rose dramatically. From a base of
4.0 in 1965, it grew to 6 percent in 1970, almost doubled to 11 percent in
1980, rose to 17 percent in 1990, and in 2000 reached 27 percent, higher than
the black illegitimacy rate that concerned Moynihan in 1965. These figures
include all social and economic classes. Friends at a pregnancy help center
in Cincinnati’s black ghetto tell me that the illegitimacy rate in that
area is at least 80 percent and may well be above the 90 percent level.
How did a contraceptively oriented sexual revolution result in more out-of-wedlock
pregnancies, births, and abortions? As W. Bradford Wilcox pointed out in “The
Facts of Life and Marriage” in the January/February 2005 issue of Touchstone,
the sexual revolution changed the meaning of sex from a “marriage act” to
a “recreational act” regardless of marital status. The number of
people having sex outside of marriage increased enormously, and every form
of birth control has its own rate of surprise pregnancies even if used (1)
properly and (2) all the time.
Moynihan would be very concerned at these rates, for he was convinced that
the deterioration of the black family was at the heart of the deterioration
of black culture. In 1965, he was a man before his time simply because he
recognized the great importance of the family as the basic unit of society.
Today, he would have lots of company.
Black comedian Bill Cosby, an icon of the entertainment world, surprised
those gathered in Washington’s Constitution Hall to celebrate the
fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 2004, by
blaming blacks for causing many of their own problems. He shocked the leadership
of the NAACP by pointing to the failure of black parents to take responsibility
for their own situation, to teach their children how to speak English, and
to keep them from crime.
Despite criticism, Cosby renewed the self-critical analysis on July 1 at the
33rd Annual Rainbow/PUSH Coalition conference in Chicago. Responding to accusations
that he was airing the dirty laundry in public, he retorted, “Let me
tell you something. Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day.
It’s cursing and calling each other ‘nigger’ as they’re
walking down the street.”
Contrary to the sociologists of Moynihan’s day, who didn’t think
sexual practices were important, Cosby zeroed in on sex. “These young
girls have no business having sex. . . . Our little nine-year-old boys [are]
having erections and acting out what they see and hear on some CD. They’re
acting that out and they don’t know the damage that they are doing when
they rape some little girl nine years old and what they have done to her whole
life. It’s time to stop!”
If there had been a 2004 Cosby in the conference in early November 1965, the
instability of the black family would have been discussed, not erased from
Sex has social consequences. We know that now (and some people always did),
after forty years of acting as if it did not. The current de facto public
policy is that the sexual behavior of mutually consenting legal adults is
of no interest to the public, and such an ostrich-like policy flies in the
face of reality. As Wilcox pointed out, eminent social scientists now recognize
the disastrous social effects of the sexual revolution.
The forty years since the ill-fated Moynihan Report have shown beyond any reasonable
doubt that sexual practice is a matter of social justice, not just private
morality. To the skeptic, I offer this challenge. Imagine what society would
be like if every person practiced traditional Christian morality, or tried
to, and public policy encouraged them.
Fatherless homes would be much rarer. The out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate would
be low. Most children would be raised by the same two parents. The social programs
designed to help poor blacks get out of the ghetto (programs designed to support
the family) would work, the ghetto would be history, and the jails would be
less than half full. Welfare spending would be only a fraction of what it is
today. Academic achievement, especially for boys, would be higher. Adolescent
emotional and psychiatric problems would be reduced. Men would live longer,
drink less, and volunteer more. Women would be safer and happier. Married couples
would have more children. The world would still be fallen, but some of the
consequences of sin would be avoided.
The challenge is to find a way to re-establish a widespread consensus that
sexual intercourse is exclusively a marital act. Because this is the biblical
teaching, any effort to reintroduce this concept into public education will
meet the parrot-like recitation of “separation of church and state,” but
the fact that the Bible contains the natural moral law should not mean that
public education must exclude its commonsense teachings.
The biblical tradition can be summed up in seventeen words: “Sexual intercourse
is intended by God to be at least implicitly a renewal of the marriage covenant.” It
can also be stated in secular terms: “Sexual intercourse ought to symbolize
the self-giving commitment of marriage, which must be exclusive, permanent,
Like Moynihan, I do not have specific proposals to offer. However, of two things
I am sure. First, to stop the deterioration of Western culture, men and women
of all ages have to experience a renewed conviction that sexual intercourse
is an act pregnant with meaning, not just an act of affection and/or sexual
release, and that it ought to be truly and exclusively an act that deepens
and strengthens an already existing public commitment whose consequences (from
children to caring for a dying spouse) the couple have accepted.
Second, in order to have marriages of fruitfulness and peace—the sort
of marriages that form the bedrock of society—married couples need to
believe that the marriage act really ought to be a true marriage act, a way
of renewing the love, trust, and commitment of their original marriage covenant
for better or for worse. They must, in other words, be open to life, at least
in the sense of not being deliberately closed to life.
Some 75 years ago, the pundit Walter Lippmann reviewed in A Preface to Morals
the theories of the moral revisionists who advocated contraceptive, serial, “companionate” marriage.
With uncommon perspicuity he noted that “in the discussion which has
ensued since birth control became generally feasible, the central confusion
has been that the reformers have tried to fix their sexual ideals in accordance
with the logic of birth control instead of the logic of human nature.” That
is still the case today.
For forty years, the American way has been to address the problems of illegitimacy
by providing free birth control, to address unhappy marriages with no-fault
divorce, fatherless homes with welfare, and unwanted babies with abortion.
This has not worked, as all the statistics show. It has only aggravated
the problems for both blacks and whites.
American policy makers, parents, and churchmen need to clarify what they want
to see forty years from now. They do not need divine foresight, because they
have the 20/20 vision of hindsight. They can learn from the mistakes of the
past 75 years and especially from those of the last 40. This time they need
to plan in accord with the logic of human nature. They need to resuscitate
the old language of chastity, modesty, self-mastery, and the permanence of
marriage, and they need to walk the talk.
Kippley recommends Lee Rainwater and William L.
Yancey’s The Moynihan
Report and the Politics of Controversy (1967) for a description of the
report and the controversy.
John F. Kippley has been writing to support the traditional Christian teaching
on contraception since 1967. With his wife, Sheila, he founded the Couple
to Couple League in 1971 to promote marital chastity through natural family
planning. A revised edition of his Sex and the Marriage Covenant will be published
by Ignatius Press. The Kippleys can be reached through Natural Family Planning
International, Inc. (www.naturalfamilyplanningandmore.org).
Touchstone magazine, May 2005