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Like other intellectuals whose legacies have been marginalized, even mired, when the conditions of the world proved not very amenable, or outright hostile, to their theories, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan spent some time in the valley of misunderstanding, the fear of which, for most thinkers, is overshadowed only by total irrelevance.

His 1965 study on black poverty prepared for the Johnson administration, in which he attributed the disintegration of the black family as a primary factor in black social misery—“The breakdown of the Negro family is the principal cause of all the problems of delinquency, crime, school dropouts, unemployment and poverty which are bankrupting our cities”—opened him up to public castigation, particularly from the left. In a recent New York Times review of a book of letters by the Senator—Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, edited by Steven R. Weisman—David Brooks writes that the report “unleashed a wave of fury” and accusations that Moynihan was a racist.

Moynihan’s notion that a culture of poverty might be to blame for black failure isn’t new. Other thinkers before him, most notably Gunnar Myrdal in his 1944 An American Dilemma, acknowledged the same thing. True, Myrdal’s argument was perhaps a bit more carefully qualified and less reliant on cultural causation than Moynihan’s, with the former taking pains to assert that such a culture of poverty was itself the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy put in motion by the “false definition,” framed by white prejudice, of blacks as inferior: “White prejudice and discrimination keep the Negro low in standards of living, health, education, manners and morals. This, in turn, gives support to white prejudice. White prejudice and Negro standards thus mutually ‘cause’ each other.” Nonetheless, the cultural factor of black poverty is still hugely important in Myrdal’s thesis, if not quite to the extent that it is in Moynihan’s.

The biggest problem that most critics saw in such reports emphasizing poverty as a cultural occurrence is that, by focusing on “morals” and “manners,” they seemed to be “blaming the victim” for his condition. But this critique itself has proven to be rather short-sighted. Ralph Ellison presciently diagnosed the misguided fury of Moynihan’s critics in his review of An American Dilemma. “Indeed, the main virtue of An American Dilemma lies in its demonstration of how the mechanism of prejudice operates to disguise the moral conflict in the minds of whites produced by the clash on the social level between the American Creed and the anti-Negro practices. There is, however, a danger in this very virtue.”

The danger was not necessarily inherent in Myrdal’s tome, or even in Moynihan’s report. The danger lay in the American public’s overreliance on abstract explanations of sociological phenomena, which might lead it to take the bleak realities presented in Myrdal’s and Moynihan’s studies as proof that blacks actually were inferior and, because of this, their fate sealed from birth. The reports, while ostensibly conducted in order to mitigate black poverty, would in reality work to perpetuate the self-fulfilling prophecy

“Since its inception,” Ellison wrote, “American social science has been closely bound with American Negro destiny.” The late nineteenth century popularity of Social Darwinism; the controversy surrounding Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve, which posits innate cognitive ability, as opposed to culture, as the determining factor in black poverty; and the 1996 welfare reform battle all bear this out. For most of American history, the national perception of poor blacks, and the prevailing reasons for their poverty, has often been aligned with whatever sociological or economic theories are most popular at the time, with the result that poor blacks are rarely perceived by the wider society as being more than an assemblage of pathologies—victims, criminals, miscreants, “welfare queens,” etc.

But whether a liberal castigation of culture as “blaming the victim” or a conservative focus on a “culture of poverty” that seeks to transfer the responsibility for being poor from the markets to the man—both views miss the mark. And the present resurgence of the view for which Moynihan was ostracized in 1965 illustrates precisely how.

A New York Times article this week notes that Moynihan’s thesis is gaining traction again among academic circles. This is in light of recent news that the poverty rate of Americans has risen to its highest level in 15 years; a “collection of papers on unmarried parents, a subject, it noted, that became off-limits after the Moynihan report,” released by Princeton and the Brookings Institution; as well as, I suspect (though this isn’t mentioned in the article), a Brookings report on the rise in the rates of suburban poverty (in which black and brown suburbs predominate).

“With these studies come many new and varied definitions of culture, but they all differ from the ‘60s-era model in these crucial respects: Today, social scientists are rejecting the notion of a monolithic and unchanging culture of poverty. And they attribute destructive attitudes and behavior not to inherent moral character but to sustained racism and isolation.” As I mentioned, this neo-Moynihan thinking is not all that “neo” at all. Moynihan himself, like Myrdal, was quite aware of the pernicious effects of racism and wasn’t necessarily laying blame in the laps of poor blacks. What is new, however, is the way more people are beginning to define culture—not as something exclusive to a set of manners or morals or mores, but as something that encompasses all parts of a society. As William Julius Wilson notes, “I realized we needed a comprehensive measure of the environment, that we must consider structural and cultural force.”

Furthermore, while it seems pretty straightforward, the academy is finally beginning to realize what "lesser lights" have known all along—urban poverty is the result of the Goliath of symmetrical disadvantage working against the David of asymmetrical advantage. For every child born into urban poverty, the stars are symmetrically aligned for him to fail and asymmetrically aligned (i.e. not aligned at all) for him to succeed—his family unit is broken from the beginning, his mother is often out of the home working, he is practically raised by his peers, he goes to school hungry, he notices that he has more of an incentive to sell drugs in order to make quick money to eat or buy clothes than he does to concentrate in school, he begins to sell drugs—right at this moment, the cultural and the systemic meet in perfect synchrony—he gets arrested, meets an overzealous prosecutor doing the dirty work of a politician eager to show that he’s tough on crime, runs into an overzealous code of drug laws, goes to prison, and if he has a child, he leaves behind a cycle that will begin anew…

"Lesser lights"—nonprofits, activists, teachers, mentors, tutors, volunteers—have understood for a long time now that the best real world response to symmetrical disadvantage is not symmetrical reform, that’s not possible in the short- or even intermediate term; but rather, asymmetrical reform. This means that while so-called cultural factors such as attitudes, values, and behaviors might not be sufficient explanations for an all-encompassing theory of urban poverty, the best and sometimes only means of reform for teachers and administrators at the KIPP Academy in the Bronx, for instance, is to emphasize these cultural factors as if they’re all that matters. It means counteracting an attitude of academic indifference and incuriosity by overemphasizing the importance of learning, or mitigating the influence of gangs in the lives of children by providing a surfeit of after-school and out-of-school activities and programs. For reformers whose laboratories are in the streets and not in the ivy towers, often times culture is the only determining factor, because it’s the only factor they can directly control.

Perhaps by de-stigmatizing the cultural explanation, legislators and policymakers will finally come around to realizing how critical asymmetrical organizations such as mentoring and tutoring groups are in the fight against urban poverty and start funding them accordingly. That’s an essential first step toward turning symmetrical disadvantage into symmetrical advantage, which would include measures such as incorporating mentoring and tutoring into the educational curriculum in school districts of need.

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Comment by Daniel Bassill on October 21, 2010 at 10:48am
Michael, this is a thoughtful article. Thank you. We need to stimulate thinking around this on many forums, not just here. I'll try to help do that. I hope others will also.

I encourage you to try to develop a follow up article that shows the role of "programs" to provide structure that makes mentoring, tutoring and other learning available in places where such programs are linkages connecting youth and families in high poverty neighborhoods, with people, ideas, opportunities and resources that are outside of those. The role of programs is critical, because individual volunteers can not connect very well with inner city kids, or stay connected very long.

This article is one of several in a library on the Tutor/Mentor Institute that can be referred to.

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