What Pat Moynihan Actually Said

03/27/2015 06:10 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

The problem with the entry of the now pervasive word "narrative" into the parlance is its congeniality to the straw-man fallacy: "Narratives" being matters of "construction," they can be constructed in a manner that makes them easy to refute.

Enter Ben Spielberg, who, purporting to "debunk" the "false family structure narrative," instead debunks his own false construction of the Moynihan Report: the demonstrably inaccurate claim that Daniel Patrick Moynihan "insist[ed] that family structure and Black '[p]athology' are primary drivers of poverty and inequality."

This may be a narrative, but Spielberg himself has woven it, for Moynihan never said it. On the contrary: Spielberg blames institutional racism and classism for inequality and suggests that poverty may drive family breakdown, not the other way around. Had he read the Report more carefully, he would have found all these insights -- and not those he attributes to Moynihan -- in its pages.

Spielberg further suggests that jobs, safety-net programs and the like are the best antidotes to poverty. The most cursory consultation of Moynihan's policy and legislative record would have revealed that the late Senator was a lifelong and often lonely champion of these, an effort in which he was stymied by critics not just to his right but also to his left.

The false claim that Moynihan blamed the victim arises, as William Julius Wilson has noted, from the press plucking quotations out of the broader context of the Report, which in fact opens with a long discussion of the legacy of slavery and racism. (For a longer discussion of the Report as a work of political theory, see here or my recent book on Moynihan.)

Spielberg continues the abstraction from context Wilson has observed, adding the twist of paraphrase, and inaccurate paraphrase at that. He thus concludes that Moynihan's "privilege-defending and inaccurate cultural narrative, however it was intended, implies that poor people of color are to blame for the effects of institutional racism and classism and diverts attention from the real causes of inequity."

What precisely Moynihan did to defend privilege is utterly unclear. Regardless, it is Spielberg, not Moynihan, doing the narrating and implying. What Moynihan said was that racism and poverty produced family breakdown, not that poor African-Americans caused either.

This wholly eludes Spielberg, who inexplicably says "little research" explores the possibility that economic duress leads to family breakdown rather than the reverse: "It may very well be the case that the hardships associated with poverty make traditional families less likely, or that many of the factors that contribute to poverty and inequality also disrupt family stability."

A reader of the actual Moynihan Report might be forgiven for wondering if Spielberg were accidentally quoting it here, for this is in fact precisely what it argued. "The fundamental, overwhelming fact is that Negro unemployment ... has continued at disaster levels for 35 years," Moynihan wrote, continuing: "The effect of recession unemployment on divorces further illustrates the economic roots of the problem." [emphasis in second sentence added] More: "The conclusion from these and similar data is difficult to avoid: During times when jobs were reasonably plentiful ... the Negro family became stronger and more stable. As jobs became more and more difficult to find, the stability of the family became more and more difficult to maintain."

No matter: Spielberg denies that ill effects arise from single-parent households anyway. Why, then, he acknowledges that "family stability is desirable" or that "[w]anting children to grow up in stable households is of course a laudable goal" is unclear. In any case, this insight of Spielberg about traditional families, to say nothing of his claim that the "narrative in the Moynihan Report" (always the "narrative") "undermines the fights for racial and class equality," escaped the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who, alluding to the Report, called the erosion of the African-American family a "social catastrophe."

Spielberg does correctly note that upper-income Americans tend to undervalue the traditional family relative to their lower-income counterparts, but this is what they say, and saying it is a luxury they have precisely because they disproportionately do not live it. (Indeed, quite apart from Spielberg's critique, one is tempted to wonder whether the upper-middle class academics pouncing on Moynihan on the occasion of the Report's anniversary typically find single parenthood to be an ideal way to raise their own children, but such is another matter.)

Spielberg also accurately notes that public policy has conspicuously failed to encourage marriage. Moynihan never claimed it could. ("If you expect a government program to change families," he once said, "you know more about government than I do.")

What policy can do, Spielberg argues, is support jobs and fight poverty. Here his quarrel with Moynihan spills over from the misleading to the mystifying, for a jobs program was precisely the response Moynihan hoped to achieve from the Report.

Another policy prescription arising from this period of reflection was Moynihan's unsuccessful fight for a guaranteed income, a proposal suffocated as much from the left as from the right. As to a minimum wage, the Report itself contains an extended discourse on the wage system's failure to support families. As to the safety net, Moynihan spearheaded, nearly alone and with enduring eloquence, the opposition to welfare reform in 1995 and 1996.

To be sure, Moynihan -- like Spielberg's contemporary target, Nicholas Kristof -- certainly believed the corrosion of the family perpetuated poverty, even if Spielberg elides poverty and welfare dependency, which Moynihan explicitly regarded as different problems. The tangle of pathology Moynihan diagnosed had, he feared, become self-perpetuating.

But to suggest he said behavioral choices were the "primary" drivers of inequality is simply wrong in point of fact -- the very kind of fact that Spielberg says should drive public policy. If Spielberg wants defenders of the Report to "listen" to rather than "castigate" its critics, he might extend Moynihan the same courtesy.