It’s been 50 years since New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued a report in the wake of the race riots of the 1960s that attempted to explain what went wrong, and how to fix it.
Moynihan and his team ended up blaming a “tangle of pathology” in which African American families had been pushed into “matriarchal structure” that was “too out of line with the rest of the American society.”
Basically, single-parent households were at the root of almost everything that was happening.
To mark the anniversary of the Moynihan report that helped set much of this in motion, Dr. Jeffrey Hayes, Study Director at the Institute for Women Policy Research, and Dr. Philip Cohen, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, have released a study evaluating exactly what role family structure has played in earnings outcomes among different races over the past five decades.
Their conclusion: Almost none.
“The changes in family structure that concerned [Moynihan] have continued, becoming widespread among whites as well, but they do not explain recent trends in poverty and inequality,” they write.
“In fact, a number of the social ills Moynihan assumed would accompany these changes have actually decreased.”
First, they explain, couple-style families are down everywhere. Dual-earner couples peaked in the ‘90s, and couples with the dad as the main breadwinner have settled at a fifth of all families with minor children, down from nearly half of all couples 50 years ago.
As it turns out, rates for all family types are down, except for those with “no earners,” which is the result of a weak labor market.
Yet poverty rates, as measured by the government’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (“SPM,” the dotted lines), which includes government benefits, have also been decreasing, for both married households and female-only households.
“The [SPM] measure shows less poverty for both types of families because it includes government transfers, which – working as intended – help the poor and reduce poverty,” they write.
Focusing only on single mothers, Hayes and Cohen find that their incidence, and the incidence of poverty, “are not tightly linked.”
From 1993 to 2002, poverty rates for black children dropped substantially, and thereafter began to climb back up again.
But during this entire period, the proportion of these children living with single mothers was basically unchanged.
There is a stronger correlation for Latinos. But as poverty rates for whites began to fall in the mid-80s, the incidence of white single mothers began to increase.
Today the poverty rate for all single-mother families is 35 percent. In 1967 more than 60 percent of single-mother families were poor.
The authors also found educational attainment to have little correlation to rates of children living with single mothers. Even as that rate kept climbing, and then stabilized, high school and college completion rates also continued to grow.
And they note that black college completion rates have doubled since 1965, to nearly 20 percent from 10 percent. Meanwhile, juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent since 1994 even as marriage rates have continued to decline.
Nor, they find, is marriage a protection against racial inequality. Black and Latino children in married-couple families are still, respectively, three- and four-times more likely to be poor than white children in such families.
“These trends show that factors beyond family structure have been important for poverty rates,” they write. “These include the business cycle: strong job growth in the late 1990s encouraged the employment of single mothers and raised their wages; in 2011 as the recession that began in late 2007 continued and earnings and job prospects failed to grow strongly, and as government transfers to the poor and unemployed which had been temporarily increased were cut back steeply, child poverty ceased falling and even grew in some years of the long recession (2007-2009) and slow recovery (2009-2014).”
There remain huge gaps. Black men still earn 81 percent of their white counterparts, and black women earn 85 percent of what white women bring in. And there remain significant racial disparities in unemployment rates, with rates for black men more than twice as high as their white counterparts.
But the emphasis on families has been misplaced.
“One of the legacies of the Moynihan Report has been to focus attention on changing family structure, rather than on other factors that are more amenable to policy intervention,” they write. “While marriage promotion programs have proven ineffective, evidence suggests that increasing employment opportunities and wage levels, anti-discrimination policies, and social safety nets have considerable potential to reduce poverty, increase economic and educational opportunity, and decrease racial inequality.”
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.