Samuel Preston: Pat Moynihan and the Quandary of Broken Families
As part of a celebration marking the publication of “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary,” AAPSS invited Samuel Preston to read one of the letters of Senator Moynihan included in the book and comment on its significance. Preston is the Frederick J. Warren Professor of Demography at the University of Pennsylvania. The following is a transcript of Preston’s selection, which may also be listened to or downloaded as a podcast.
Letter from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Hillary Rodham Clinton, August 24, 1992
Samuel Preston: The letter is prefaced in this wonderful volume in the following way, “Letter to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Governor Bill Clinton, the Democratic Presidential nominee had joined with his wife and Senator Al Gore and Mrs. Gore in a campaign appearance in Chautauqua in upstate New York. Moynihan was just beginning to forge a relationship with her on family and health issues. The date is August 24, 1992.”
Dear Mrs. Clinton,
Liz and I want you to know how moved we were by your address yesterday at Chautauqua. It must surely have been the first occasion in American history to candidates for President and Vice President, joined by their spouses, devoted an entire campaign event to the subject of family stability, or as near as makes no matter, and did so with sensitivity, information, and a clear aversion to understandable untruth. Some while ago, Samuel Preston, in a presidential address to the Population Association of America, spoke of the earthquake that shuddered through the American family since the early 1960s. It continues; it will be the most important issue of social policy in the generation to come and thanks to such as you may now be addressed. I picked out the earlier tremors and have followed the subject for thirty years now but haven’t the faintest notion as to what realistically can be done.
So this is an interesting letter, I think, for several reasons. Of course the main reason is that Pat refers to my research; more precisely he cites a phrase that I used in 1984 to summarize a large body of data that I reviewed on family changes occurring between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s. Pat was unusually smitten by this earthquake phrase. Among other places, he cited it on the front page of the New York Times, in a Senate speech, and in the opening paragraph of his book Family and Nation. It had staying power; his letter to Hillary was written eight years after I had used it and the Senate speech was eleven years later. James Patterson says in his new and excellent biography of Pat – in case you have not seen it I recommend it, Freedom Is Not Enough – he says that Pat had a fondness for overwrought language and maybe this is just an example of this fondness. But he did also cite data and analysis from this paper and from several others of mine and of course from other researchers as well. Pat was very data-oriented. He used social data very effectively, both in his scholarly writing and in his policy pieces. He once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” His citation of facts, including those contained in the Moynihan Report, has been basically unchallenged. He clearly learned from data, did not simply use it to support a position. The paper of mine that he cites here was called Children and the Elderly: Divergent Paths for America’s Dependence. The paper showed that on several dimensions—economic social, psychological—older people in America had been doing much better over time and children had been doing much worse. Older people had benefited from social policies in ways that children had not. And clearly some of the economic disadvantages that children were facing, especially the increase in child poverty, were a result of what I called a disappearing act by fathers. That was easily documented through huge increases in out of wedlock births, in marital disruption, and in the enormous discrepancy between poverty rates in one-parent families and two-parent families. These are much the same factors that Pat had drawn attention to in black families in the 1965 Moynihan Report. I think he was gratified to hear echoes of that report in my work and to have somebody else taking family change very seriously.
After two decades of very rapid family change, white families by 1984 looked very much like black families had in 1965 and by now, 2010, all of the indicators that Pat labeled pathological in the Moynihan Report are much worse for whites than they were for blacks when he wrote. Social scientists have not done a good job, I think, of explaining these trends. But one factor is consistent. Between black families of 1965 and black and white families of today, economically women are doing better and better relative to men, a circumstance that emerged earlier among blacks. I do not think there is much doubt that this factor has produced marriages that are more tentative, more vulnerable, but that may not be as problematic as it appeared twenty to forty years ago. One reason that marriages are more tentative is simply that women have more alternatives. They are not forced to live with some of the bad bargains of the past and I do not think anybody would wish those bargains back upon them. The result of family change, however, in the U.S. is that over half of American children will not live with both parents throughout their childhoods. Have children suffered from these changes? I think the evidence is pretty clear that on average, children enjoy somewhat better outcomes in two-parent families than in one-parent families. Differences in school performance and psychological profiles are not large; most kids seem pretty resilient to family setbacks and the economic disadvantages of female-headed households for children do not seem as large as they once did now that studies have found that women direct a higher fraction of their resources to children in a household than typically men do. Nevertheless, as it did to Pat, the departure of fathers from children’s households seemed both damaging socially and unjust with children as innocent victims. So what is to be done? The Moynihan Report was criticized at the time for not offering any recommendations. I think it is noteworthy that Pat’s letter to Hillary Clinton almost three decades later ends by saying, “I picked out the earlier tremors and have followed the subject for thirty years now, but haven’t the faintest notion as to what realistically can be done.” And certainly neither do I. What we have accomplished, I think, as a society without being very explicit about it is that change, the tradeoff between adult well-being and child well-being. This is made, I think, pretty clear in a recent round of the General Social Survey, which asked for a response to the following question: “When there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don’t get along.” Only sixteen percent of adults agreed with this statement, twenty percent of men and twelve percent of women. Given a choice, and most have a choice, neither men nor women are willing to accept that the core of their lives, an intimate relationship that is not working, and they are not hypocritical enough to ask others to accept it – that battle seems to be over for better or worse. Now, the demographer in me points out that we spend eighteen years of our lives as a child and about sixty years as an adult, so maybe this revision in life cycle well-being has a little bit of demographic logic. In any event, the idea that we could make marginal changes in tax laws or marital entrance or exit requirements that would turn this ship around and create more stable marriages seems a bit fanciful. I think instead of encouraging greater marital stability, an indirect approach to improving conditions of children, we should focus on direct approaches by improving social institutions that serve children, above all schools, childcare facilities, health facilities, and child welfare services. Obviously we should be grateful to and supportive of the mothers and fathers who are investing enormous resources to raise the next generation of Americans, but we can surely give them more help without forcing ill-matched people to grin and bear it.
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