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William Julius Wilson on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “Agenda-Setting” Contributions to Social Science

  • Mon, May 25 2009
    • William Julius Wilson
  • William Julius Wilson on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “Agenda-Setting” Contributions to Social Science

"It amuses me every time I read that some of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s critics dismiss the importance of his scholarly work—arguing that he rarely published in peer-review journals, that his writings on poverty and welfare were shoddy, and that, as one critic put it, 'he had not made a positive contribution to public understanding of these topics.'"

"I categorically reject such views.  Indeed, Moynihan made major contributions to social science in three areas: (1) race and ethnic relations; (2) poverty and family structure; and (3) social science and public policy. His book, Beyond the Melting Pot, co-authored with Nathan Glazer, is one of the most widely cited books on race and ethnic relations.  This book effectively challenged the view that immigrants would eventually lose their ethnic identities by showing that ethnicity is an enduring social form, persisting through successive generations."

"Moynihan’s study of the relationship between poverty and family structure, famously known as the Moynihan Report, is, as I noted in a recent article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, an important and prophetic document.  It is important because it continues to be a reference for studies on the black family and the plight of low-skilled black males.  It was prophetic because Moynihan’s predictions about the fragmentation of the African American Family and its connection to inner-city poverty were largely borne out, and since 1990, social scientists and civil rights leaders have echoed his concerns about black make joblessness and the need for social policies that would address their skills deficits and change behavioral responses that emanate from severe employment constraints."

"Moynihan attempted to synthesize structural and cultural analyses to understand the dynamics of poor black families and the plight of low-skilled black males.  And now, more than forty years after the public release of his report, we are seeing the beginnings of a more sophisticated synthesis of structure and culture by social scientists who readily acknowledge Moynihan’s important contribution to this subject."

"Also, he was one the first social scientists to call attention to the growing gap between the black middle class and the black poor—a gap that has continued to widen and has been the focus of a lot of research and writings, including my own."

"Finally, Moynihan was among the early social scientists who recognized that as racial barriers fall in the face of anti-discrimination legislation, the cumulative effects of racial oppression will make it extremely difficult for many poor African Americans to take advantage of opportunities provided by the civil rights movement.  Accordingly, he recommended a shift in civil-rights activity to increase the resources of the black family."

"Since Moynihan’s writings on race and ethnic relations and on poverty and family structure have been the focus of so much subsequent research—indeed the number of studies boggles the mind—I strongly feel that he ranks among some of our most important social scientists."

"Although many of Moynihan’s ideas represent an original synthesis of existing scholarship, his work was bold and controversial.  But, the controversy was productive.  I think that my colleague at Harvard, Theda Skocpol, put it best.  She stated that Moynihan’s taste for controversy has influenced both his political and academic careers.  And that he had an extraordinary ability to dramatize an issue by putting his finger on things.  For example, she states, his report on the black family performed a national service in dramatizing the issue of family structure, and many people 'who care about inequality are fully aware of its contribution.'  I fully agree.  This man’s work was agenda setting.  I am so pleased that he is finally getting the full recognition that he deserves.  Thank you."

William Julius Wilson is Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. The preceding are excerpts from his remarks in presenting the 2009 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize to David Ellwood.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.