In 1965, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) published what is commonly known today as The Moynihan Report. For anyone studying the decline of community and the rise of destructive social pathologies, it is a must-read document that has been proven prescient over the years.
As the Report focuses primarily on the Black community, Sen. Moynihan spends much time focusing on the state of Black families in the early 1960s.
At the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of [Black] society is the deterioration of the [Black] family.
It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the [Black] community at the present time.
There is probably no single fact of [Black] American life so little understood by whites.
The [Black] situation is commonly perceived by whites in terms of the visible manifestation of discrimination and poverty, in part because [Black] protest is directed against such obstacles, and in part, no doubt, because these are facts which involve the actions and attitudes of the white community as well. It is more difficult, however, for whites to perceive the effect that three centuries of exploitation have had on the fabric of [Black] society itself. Here the consequences of the historic injustices done to [Black] Americans are silent and hidden from view. But here is where the true injury has occurred: unless this damage is repaired, all the effort to end discrimination and poverty and injustice will come to little.
The role of the family in shaping character and ability is so pervasive as to be easily overlooked. The family is the basic social unit of American life; it is the basic socializing unit. By and large, adult conduct in society is learned as a child.
A fundamental insight of psychoanalytic theory, for example, is that the child learns a way of looking at life in his early years through which all later experience is viewed and which profoundly shapes his adult conduct.
It may be hazarded that the reason family structure does not loom larger in public discussion of social issues is that people tend to assume that the nature of family life is about the same throughout American society. The mass media and the development of suburbia have created an image of the American family as a highly standardized phenomenon. It is therefore easy to assume that whatever it is that makes for differences among individuals or groups of individuals, it is not a different family structure.
But there is one truly great discontinuity in family structure in the United States at the present time: that between the white world in general and that of the [Black] American.
The white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability.
By contrast, the family structure of lower class [Blacks] is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown.
As Sen. Moynihan saw the family as the foundation of society, he was alarmed by the data on Black families and the trends toward disintegration.
Nearly a Quarter of Urban [Black] Marriages are Dissolved.
Nearly a quarter of [Black] women living in cities who have ever married are divorced, separated, or are living apart from their husbands.
The rates are highest in the urban Northeast where 26 percent of Negro women ever married are either divorced, separated, or have their husbands absent.
On the urban frontier, the proportion of husbands absent is even higher. In New York City in 1960, it was 30.2 percent, not including divorces.
Nearly One-Quarter of [Black] Births are now Illegitimate.
Both white and [Black] illegitimacy rates have been increasing, although from dramatically different bases. The white rate was 2 percent in 1940; it was 3.07 percent in 1963. In that period, the [Black] rate went from 16.8 percent to 23.6 percent.
Today, the out-of-wedlock birthrate for the Black community is over 70%. For some time, individuals from all sides of the political spectrum have been ringing the alarm about the distressingly high number, but to little avail. It is a topic that few want to acknowledge and even fewer want to seriously discuss.
What seems to be little noticed or discussed is what is happening amongst childbearing Millennials of ALL races. No longer is a high out-of-wedlock birthrate limited to the Black community. Indeed, 64% of child-bearing Millennials had at least one child out of wedlock.
But does it matter?
When discussing the topic with Millennials, what you often find is that they believe marriage has little impact on children. Nor do they think that it makes a difference for a child if his biological mother and father live together in the same home with him. Marriage is no longer seen as an institution designed to protect both children and society, but rather something for those who want to make a more serious commitment to their love.
What is of great concern to Millennials, though, is the loneliness and isolation that many of them sense, despite all of the connectedness the internet and social media have to offer.
Might the two be linked, though?
If Sen. Moynihan is right, that family is the basic foundation of society and that it is in family that we are first provided security, love, community, and socialization, then it seems reasonable to ponder the link between the collapse of community and the collapse of the family. And if those two issues are more than just correlations, then might the way back to restoring community be to first restore the family?
St. Pope John Paul II saw clearly the challenges of an atomized existence even in the late-1980s and early-1990s. In Centesimus Annus, he argued that before we can restore our sense of community with our fellow citizens, we must first restore our family life.
The first and fundamental structure for ‘human ecology’ is the family, in which man receives his first formative ideas about truth and goodness, and learns what it means to love and to be loved, and thus what it actually means to be a person. Here we mean the family founded on marriage, in which the mutual gift of self by husband and wife creates an environment in which children can be born and develop their potentialities, become aware of their dignity and prepare to face their unique and individual destiny.
But it often happens that people are discouraged from creating the proper conditions for human reproduction and are led to consider themselves and their lives as a series of sensations to be experienced rather than as a work to be accomplished. The result is a lack of freedom, which causes a person to reject a commitment to enter into a stable relationship with another person and to bring children into the world, or which leads people to consider children as one of the many "things" which an individual can have or not have, according to taste, and which compete with other possibilities.
In order to overcome today's widespread individualistic mentality, what is required is a concrete commitment to solidarity and charity, beginning in the family with the mutual support of husband and wife and the care which the different generations give to one another. In this sense the family too can be called a community of work and solidarity.
It can happen, however, that when a family does decide to live up fully to its vocation, it finds itself without the necessary support from the State and without sufficient resources. It is urgent therefore to promote not only family policies, but also those social policies which have the family as their principle object, policies which assist the family by providing adequate resources and efficient means of support, both for bringing up children and for looking after the elderly, so as to avoid distancing the latter from the family unit and in order to strengthen relations between generations.
Apart from the family, other intermediate communities exercise primary functions and give life to specific networks of solidarity. These develop as real communities of persons and strengthen the social fabric, preventing society from becoming an anonymous and impersonal mass, as unfortunately often happens today.
It is in interrelationships on many levels that a person lives, and that society becomes more ‘personalized’. The individual today is often suffocated between two poles represented by the State and the marketplace. At times it seems as though he exists only as a producer and consumer of goods, or as an object of State administration. People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve. Man remains above all a being who seeks the truth and strives to live in that truth, deepening his understanding of it through a dialogue which involves past and future generations.
For those of us who came of age in broken families, we know all too well the imperfectness of our parents. Some have even suffered negligence and abuse at the hands entrusted to their care. It goes without saying that family and marriage are by no means ‘silver bullets’ for healing the pains of our modern times.
Nonetheless, even in its imperfectness family can be a source of great security and strength, it is the first community we experience. As such, maybe more of us need to work at strengthening that first community, teaching our children how to live in charity with each other if we are to begin rebuilding the bonds of community in our society.
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Devin is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Charlemagne Institute, which operates Intellectual Takeout, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and the Alcuin Internship. He is a graduate of Hillsdale College where he studied history and political science. Prior to co-founding Charlemagne Institute, he served as the Director of Development at the Center of the American Experiment, a state-based think tank in Minnesota.
Devin is a contributor to local and national newspapers, a frequent guest on a variety of talk shows, such as Minneapolis' KTLK and NPR's Talk of the Nation, and regularly shares culture and education insights presenting to civic groups, schools, and other organizations. In 2011, he was named a Young Leader by the American Swiss Foundation.
Devin and his wife have been married for eighteen years and have six children. When he's not working, Devin enjoys time with family while also relaxing through reading, horticulture, home projects, and skiing and snowboarding.