Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Working Catholic: Family Structure by Bill Droel

The Vatican-sponsored World Synod on the Family continues this fall and a companion Family Congress (, in which Pope Francis will participate, occurs September 22-27, 2015 in Philadelphia. So far, most reports about these events focus on internal church matters like annulment procedures and inviting the divorced to the Eucharist. These topics carry some importance but are hardly the sum of family life concerns.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the most famous piece of social science analysis. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) was principle author of The Negro Family: the Case for National Action (U.S. Department of Labor; Its 53 pages were controversial from the start and the 1965 report was soon shelved under accusations of racism. Only recently is it given critical examination.

“The liberal denunciations of Moynihan were terribly unfair,” writes Nicholas Kristof in N.Y. Times (3/12/15). Not only liberals, says America Magazine (6/15/15). “Moynihan’s report was misunderstood by both the left and the right.” “The onslaught of misleading attacks on the report and its author” were a mistake says Peter Steinfels in Commonweal (4/10/15). “Moynihan was right in broaching the delicate subject of the relationship of family breakdown and poverty.”

Moynihan believed that poverty is more complicated than a lack of dollars and cents. The family “is the key institution for socialization,” his 1965 report said. Yet, “families were breaking up under economic and social pressure” and, the report says, “the breakup of poor black families contributed to the spread of crime and unrest [and other problems] in the cities.” 

Noted sociologist Robert Putnam in his engaging book Our Kids (Simon & Schuster, 2015) updates Moynihan’s concern with new statistics. In 1965 the situation was glaring among blacks. Today, says Putnam, it is spread throughout poor and working-class groups, particularly increasing among whites. The majority of poor and working-class couples do not use the institution of marriage. About 65% of children in these families are raised by only one parent most of the time. These children have more health issues and are overly represented in social service agencies and in juvenile court. A household headed by a non-married couple or a single-parent household “is not an uncaused first cause” of poverty, warns Putnam. Cultural, economic and individual variables are quite entangled. But—as Moynihan attempted to say—there is a correlation between a family’s structure and its economic prospects.

 Thankfully, it is no longer taboo to converse, research and act on the topic of social policy and family life. However, the experience of 50 years ago yields some cautions:

§  The situation is not about race; it is about poverty.
§  The lack of marriage is not the direct and isolated cause of poverty. Nor will poverty be reduced simply because more couples are somehow cajoled to walk up the church aisle or visit a justice of the peace. More has to happen.
§  It is a mistake to think that those people with problems are over there and we over here carry little or no responsibility for their behavior or for poverty.
§  It is a mistake to think that moral character is inherent across an entire family, an entire neighborhood or through successive generations. A healthy and whole environment makes it easier for someone to be holy, but each individual is responsible for their own character.
§  It is a mistake to think that government programs alone can fortify family life and eradicate poverty. In fact, as Moynihan said, some government programs have “rotted the poor.”
§  It is equally a mistake to think all government assistance is counterproductive and wasteful of taxes. Moynihan, for example, was among the very few senators to vote against President Bill Clinton’s elimination of AFDC welfare. Some government assistance in some places in some quantities is beneficial. Government jobs in particular have an anti-poverty, pro-family dynamic. Cuts in funding to Amtrak, to the U.S. Post Office and to many social service agencies are detrimental to family life.

 Bishop Blasé Cupich of Chicago, drawing upon Putnam’s research, links the church’s concern about family life to issues like “comprehensive immigration reform” and a living wage for those in food services, in retail and for “untenured college professors.” This family life perspective, shared by other Catholic leaders, must make its way to the top of the agenda for the World Synod on the Family and the Family Congress.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter about faith and work.

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