Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama
By James T. Patterson
Basic Books 2010
216 Pages
Preface, Annotated Endnotes and Index

On May 22, 1964, the late President Lyndon Johnson challenged the graduating class at the University of Michigan to make not just a more rich and powerful society, but a Great Society “. . .where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.” In practice the Great Society came to be known as a set of domestic programs and legislative initiatives designed, in part, to lift Americans out of poverty and create a more just society. It was a giddy time in America. Finally the country appeared to be moving toward resolving its centuries old racial problems; indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sent to Congress in June 1963 by the late president John F. Kennedy, was signed just two months after LBJ’s speech later. The Economic Opportunity Act, the cornerstone of Johnson’s War on Poverty, was also signed that summer, and the morass that was Vietnam was not on the radar for most of the American public.

Enter Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The avuncular, ebullient Irishman was a political appointee in the United States Department of Labor, and one of the experts Johnson relied upon to assemble his Great Society. Moynihan was charged with trying to make some sense out of the twin evils of unemployment and out-of-wedlock births in poor, black communities.

By 1965 the back de jure segregation, especially that found in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, had been broken. That hard earned triumph had virtually no impact, however, on the pernicious economic conditions many northern black city dwellers found themselves. According to Moynihan’s report, twenty five percent of black babies were born to unwed mothers, and almost forty percent lived with one parent or none at all. Blacks divorced at a rate that was forty percent higher than that of whites. The black family was disintegrating, trapping millions of African Americans in a cycle of pathology and poverty. Black fathers had abandoned their families, and the lack of a male presence in a large swath of the African American community was too many black families were Moynihan, the child of a broken home, was convinced that the answer was more job opportunities, and only the government could ensure that this could be accomplished.

Unfortunately, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, had the misfortune of being leaked after the Watts riot of 1965–to this day the identity of the whistle blower remains unknown, although some say it was Moynihan himself–and public reaction was immediate and visceral. White liberals castigated the report and Moynihan as racist, and much of the rest of white America was appalled at what they saw as thousands of blacks destroying their own community. Black liberals charged Moynihan with blaming the victim. Even LBJ was suitably chastened; the report was scuttled, and so was Johnson’s remaining civil rights agenda.

The publication of The Negro Family had another consequence, surely unforseen by Moynihan: It ensured that for the next three decades the study of cultural changes in poor black communities would be untenable. Anyone, black or white, who dared to suggest that part of the problem is cultural was shouted down as racist, misguided and uncaring. Moreover, this reticence left a vacuum that was filled by political conservatives who highjacked the discussion on the causes of poverty in the black community and replaced it with hectoring on personal responsibility and huge cuts in an already meager social safety net. This is unfortunate because the conditions in urban black communities today are more dire than they were in 1965.

Freedom is Never Free is chock full of statistics and studies, yet briskly written. In one slim volume, Patterson manages to give the reader a short biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sharp analysis of his infamous report and an update on the latest research on what seems to be the intractable problem of black urban poverty. He has also reminded us of one of the last times the government felt a responsibility for those on the margins of American society.


Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Department of Humanities at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.