In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Johnson administration when he wrote what was to be a confidential report titled The Negro Family: the Case for National Action. The report (which came to be known simply as The Moynihan Report) was written to make the case for a massive federal intervention to break the cycle of poverty that was plaguing African-American families, largely by pursuing a national policy of full employment. The report became wildly controversial, the federal intervention never came and, almost 50 years later, it’s easy to make a case that equal opportunity for Black Americans in terms of education, employment and social mobility is, if anything, worse it was in the 1960’s.
Partly due to the controversy generated by the Moynihan Report, social science in the 1970s and early 1980s went through a period that Douglas S. Massey has called “a time in the wilderness…when people were afraid to take on the serious issues that were plaguing Black America…. Many lived in fear of being criticized for demeaning African-American life by discussing things like poverty, crime, drug addiction and family fragmentation.”
Enter William Julius Wilson.
First with the publication of The Declining Significance of Race in 1978, and then with his monumental work The Truly Disadvantaged in 1987, Wilson made it permissible once again for academics to speak openly and candidly about race, racism, stratification and disadvantage in America. He introduced the concept that concentrated poverty has dire, deleterious effects on particular racial groups in the United States, and was the inspiration to generations of social scientists dedicated to research on urban affairs and social welfare. Like Moynihan, Wilson has been vilified by both the Right and the Left over the course of his notable career.
On May 9, AAPSS presented its 7th annual Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize to Wilson, recognizing him as a champion of the use of social science in advancing the public good. We asked him to deliver the inaugural Daniel Patrick Moynihan lecture on social Science and Public Policy, which he gave that afternoon at the National Press Club. Wilson made the case for a coordinated, deliberate intervention at the policy level aimed at improving the economic futures of poor and working-class Blacks and Latinos. He reprised and updated his argument for coordinated policy interventions to address poverty, and discussed what he called the “critical disconnect” between the poor and gainful employment. “The plight of these workers calls for a comprehensive policy initiative that addresses all of these problems and appreciates how they are inextricably connected.”
Since Moynihan’s time in the 1960s and especially since Wilson’s groundbreaking work in the 1980s, a great deal of knowledge has emerged that can help guide policymakers toward more effective and just social interventions. We can only hope that an opportune moment for broad-based national action will soon emerge.
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