Moynihan remained a neoconservative hero through the 1970s, especially during his stint as United Nations ambassador, when he battled on Israel’s behalf against those who would have equated Zionism with racism. He was elected to the Senate in 1976 and served for 24 years, with broad popular support. But he quickly grew impatient with the neoconservatives, especially as they bloated the Soviet threat and supported Ronald Reagan, who wanted to gut programs for the poor. “I watched all this with a combination of incredulity, horror and complicity,” he wrote in “Pandaemonium.” The Soviet Union — and the Marxist fantasy — was collapsing, and yet Reagan persisted in a war against Communism in Nicaragua: “all this in the cause of fighting a Cold War that was over.”
By the 1990s, Moynihan began to mesh his two great insights. Ethnic and caste conflicts were on the rise in the United States and the world, accompanied by the postindustrial social issues he had anticipated. Could these be linked? The problems seemed worse than ever, and had extended to the white working class, where the out-of-wedlock birthrate was higher than it had been in the Black community when he wrote the Moynihan Report — indeed, poverty was becoming entwined with cultural behavior patterns passed from one generation to the next. Gun crime was epidemic, fueled, in part, by crack cocaine, a disastrous new drug technology. The Clinton administration’s response to these problems was, he believed, punitive: more prison for Black men and less welfare for Black women. He was infuriated by Clinton’s welfare reform plan: He called it “boob bait for bubbas.” He predicted millions of children would be sleeping on subway grates, which proved an exaggeration — although thousands did slip through the holes in the new, less sturdy safety net. “We are at the point of knowing a fair amount about what we don’t know,” Moynihan wrote in “Miles to Go.” “The past quarter-century has been quite productive in this regard. On the other hand, our social situation is considerably worse.” Deviancy — by which he meant antisocial behavior — was being “defined down.”
Twenty-five years later, we live in a world that was Moynihan’s nightmare: Postmodern tribes — with their own fake “facts” — have gone virtual; affinity groups are organized by cable news networks and social media platforms. Cynicism about government’s ability to do anything useful abounds. It remains to be seen if Joe Biden’s postindustrial version of the New Deal — which Moynihan would have voted for enthusiastically, as it reduces inequality with a minimum of social engineering — will heal the wounds. He would, I suspect, be busily foraging for statistics to prove that tax increases have little or no impact on economic growth. Both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton proved that (and even Ronald Reagan raised taxes when few were looking).
Moynihan didn’t leave us many policy prescriptions, but he did bequeath a method: the gathering of statistics about family and poverty, accompanied by a cleareyed analysis of what they indicated. “Progress begins on social problems when it becomes possible to measure them,” he wrote. Statistics might even, from time to time, contain some good news — and, in fact, the past 40 years have seen great progress in the area that concerned him most: equality for African-Americans. In his 1970 “benign neglect” memo to Nixon, he foresaw “extraordinary progress” for Black people. And that has happened. There is now a solid Black middle and professional class — nearly half of African-American families have incomes over $50,000 — although disproportionate rates of poverty persist and wealth disparities remain.
Racism persists, too; uglier than ever, as the white majority fades. But even culture can change over time. The Black out-of-wedlock birthrate stands at 70 percent, but Black women are graduating from college at a stunning rate — and they are making mature choices about when and how to have children (teenage births have plummeted). According to the Princeton sociologist Kathryn Edin, many of these women are “stabilizing their family arrangements” and finding partners over time. It would be fascinating to know Moynihan’s thoughts about this. He might even be pleased.
“With any luck — and why not? — there will be examples of successful adaptation, compromise, evolution,” he wrote in “Pandaemonium.” “Not every [change] will be without grief. But humor and intellect help.”
BOOKS IN THIS ESSAY
BEYOND THE MELTING POT: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City (1963), with Nathan Glazer. The breakthrough study of ethnicity in America.