Decades before our national discourse gave us the term “fake news,” Senator Daniel Patrick "Pat" Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts.”
Moynihan’s reputation as a scrupulous seeker of evidence-based solutions to America’s struggle with poverty and inequality carried him through an impressive career. He was an assistant secretary of labor under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, a domestic policy adviser and ambassador to India under Nixon, an outspoken ambassador to the United Nations under Ford, and a senator for New York from 1977 to 2001.
“No one understood the importance of objective truth and rigorous reasoning in government more than Senator Moynihan,” said president of the Ford Foundation Darren Walker at the DC premiere of the new documentary Moynihan. The event was hosted by the Urban Institute and the Ford Foundation at the US Navy Memorial in a theater beneath the apartment complex where Moynihan once lived.
“Senator Moynihan believed in and demonstrated the ways that government can grapple with big problems, propose big ideas, and put people and solutions and justice first,” Walker added. In the documentary, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) describes Moynihan as “an ideas person but not an ideologue. He had a lot of friends on the Republican side.”
A controversial quest to understand and address American poverty
One of these “big ideas” came in the form of the controversial Moynihan Report, a major focus of the documentary and a defining aspect of Moynihan’s legacy.
Written by Moynihan during the Johnson administration to help inform the War on Poverty, the report focused on the structural roots of black poverty and concluded that a high rate of black families headed by single mothers would make progress toward equity difficult.
“As an African American, I am indebted to Moynihan for daring to raise the super-sensitive subject of the weakening of the two-parent African American family, which literally sustained African Americans in the United States through slavery and terrible discrimination into the 1960s,” said Eleanor Holmes-Norton, congresswoman for Washington, DC (D).
She continued: “His own experience as a fatherless child who grew up to be a scholar surely prepared Moynihan to take on this subject, but African Americans were and perhaps remain unprepared to hear about family life from couriers whose own background appear, at least on the surface, to implicate them.”
American families still need support
Moynihan’s interest in helping families inspired his proposed Family Assistance Plan during the Nixon administration, which would have been a “negative income tax or guaranteed minimum income” for families meeting certain requirements. But the proposal failed to garner enough votes in the Senate.
Moynihan opposed welfare reform in 1996, which imposed work requirements and shifted authority and funding to state governments. The number of families receiving cash assistance subsequently declined.
But in Moynihan, sociologist Kathryn Edin notes how the welfare rolls began declining before welfare reform, around the time President Clinton signed an expansion of the earned income tax credit into law in 1993.
Described by Edin as “a major engine lifting people out of poverty,” and today, one of our country’s most effective antipoverty tools, the earned income tax credit can be viewed as a modern version of Moynihan’s Family Assistance Plan.
New Urban Institute research illuminates the struggles many Americans face, even amid a growing economy, and the critical role the safety net plays in reducing material hardship. Moynihan’s quest to help American families and alleviate persistent inequality through evidence-based strategies sets an ever-important example for leaders to follow.