The Family and the Social-Assistance State

The economic downturn has revealed staggering absurdities in the ways government regularly does business, including spectacular instances of high spending beyond available means in states like California – with no thought about inevitable rainy days. But the problems are compounded by a liberal media that misreads the signs of distress as lack of compassion rather than what they really are: indications of a subversion of a natural order.

Several weeks ago, newspapers in NYC started running stories about the ways in which the city’s budget woes were causing cuts in child and elder care. In the process, they showed how much the government-run programs have replaced the natural institutions of neighborhood and family to the detriment of the latter.

Catholic teaching – indeed all sane social philosophy – has long regarded the family as the “original cell of social life.” In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II pointed out the dangers to the family from the “Social Assistance State,” and the importance of subsidiarity in relief efforts, which he said should respect the proper authority of lower-order communities and should be as brief as possible in order to avoid creating a pernicious dependency. Most social scientists, of course, make light of this danger.

One social scientist who appreciated the Church’s social doctrines on the family and understood the limits of social planning was the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. For the record, I admired Moynihan the urban-policy expert, not the U.S. Senator. As a New York resident, I voted against him four times.

But during the heyday of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, when the federal government was writing blank checks for many hastily conceived and dubious social welfare programs, Assistant Secretary of Labor D. P. Moynihan issued a groundbreaking 1965 report, The Negro Family: the Case for National Action. “The Moynihan Report,” as it famously became known, was based on work by the Labor Department’s Policy Planning and Research Staff. It painted a bleak picture of the nation’s inner-city African-American poor.

Moynihan found that many poor blacks were caught up in a “tangle of pathology” thanks to U.S. welfare systems that simply “pensioned the Negros off.” The expansion of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) – which was originally created in 1935 to provide help to needy orphans and widows – actually encouraged black men to abandon their children because AFDC could not be paid to families where fathers were in the home. This also contributed to a sharp rise in out-of-wedlock black births.

Moynihan added that the absence of male figures damaged family stability and contributed to an “entire sub-culture of dependency, alienation, and despair.” It also pushed black families into “a matriarchal structure, which, because it is so out of touch with the rest of American Society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and in consequence, in a great many Negro women as well.”

Moynihan was brought up Catholic and lived in a fatherless home; he understood the importance of family, religious, and neighborhood ties and “the enduring power of ethnic and racial cultures.” And he approached the problem of the disintegrating black family from a different perspective than was typical at the time.

Freedom Is Not Enough, a recently published book on the Moynihan Report by historian James T. Patterson, points out that Moynihan, influenced by “Catholic social welfare philosophy (which placed family well-being at the core of the good society) . . . favored enactment of family allowances that would be given to all families with children.” He also argued for programs that would give “men proper jobs and a respectable place in the community and family.”

All hell broke loose after President Johnson said a June 1965 commencement speech at Howard University (“Freedom Is Not Enough,” based on Moynihan’s findings) that if the black family unit did not become more cohesive, all the civil-rights gains would become meaningless.

Moynihan was assaulted by members of the Civil Rights Movement, the poverty industry, and the fledging feminist movement for his “unflattering description of matriarchy” and for leaving the “impression that lower-class black women having babies out of wedlock were irresponsible.” Patricia Harris, a black leader, complained that the family issue was not the explanation for the problems of African-Americans. It was “white discrimination against them, the white assumption of black inferiority.” Dr. Benjamin F. Payton, a black sociologist, denounced Moynihan as a “crypto-racist.”

An intimidated Lyndon Johnson distanced himself from the speech; his administration repudiated the Moynihan Report; and their destructive poverty programs continued to be funded.

Despite the success of the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act), inner-city African-Americans are still suffering from the unintended consequences of Great Society policies. Out-of-wedlock black births, which were 17 percent in 1940 and 25 percent in 1965, hit 72 percent in 2007 – even as racism in American society sharply declined.

Big government has consistently failed to address the problems of poor and troubled families, white and black. And the reasons for its shortcomings were best expressed by Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus: “Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. . . . By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients.”

We still have not learned this crucial lesson – crucial both for American society and poor families themselves.  Indeed, we’ve now got an Administration that has used the current economic downturn as an excuse for the very same fundamental error of failing to extend subsidiarity into many more sectors of society. As in the past, the results are not likely to be pretty.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.