For most of the 1990s I was privileged to work in the U.S. Senate for Dan Coats of Indiana. I began as his deputy press secretary and later became his communications manager and press secretary. It was a joyous professional ride over nearly a decade, and I was honored to cross over with some of the largest personalities in the history of that institution: Bob Dole of Kansas, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia. With only one exception—Dole, who is 92—they are all dead now, their legacies a subject for the history books.

But in my time as a staffer, there was no man, other than Coats himself, for whom I acquired more respect than a senator whose worldview in elemental ways was almost exactly the opposite of my own: Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

Even before coming to the Senate, Moynihan had enjoyed an illustrious career, working for presidents from both parties and serving twice as an ambassador—first in India, then famously as America’s representative to the United Nations. His tenure at the latter accorded him a reputation as perhaps the most effective person the U.S. has ever sent to that global institution on the East River in Manhattan. Moynihan was fleet of foot and silver of tongue in a tangled international arena—lithe, eloquent, an orator of gifted if eccentric locution.

During my time in the Senate, I made it a special point to follow Moynihan’s career because he seemed to me the rarest thing in American politics: a public intellectual who earnestly valued the contest of ideas and welcomed the spirited thrust and parry that comes with it. Though a liberal Democrat who had made his peace with large government, he acknowledged the limits of political power.

Moynihan always seemed to strike the right balance between constituent services and watching out for New York while finding a way to become a central player in public policy far beyond his home state. He would regularly publish in small journals and magazines scholarly articles that ended up having a national and international impact, often on topics involving the American family. He had a gift for spotting domestic trends, for good and ill, and galvanizing others to take interest in what he had found. thisarticleappears copy

He had been raised in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, a tough part of town; he made his way to a Ph.D. in sociology and eventually became a noted professor at Harvard. He was a supple and gifted thinker and writer, drawing from empirical evidence the most astonishing and even prophetic conclusions based on data that others had overlooked.

The most controversial study he ever wrote, the one that propelled him to national attention, was published 50 years ago this year—an event worth recalling because “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” also known as “the Moynihan Report,” focused on the direction of the American black family and the conditions under which children were being raised. Eventually his research would illuminate reasons for the breakdown of much of the American nuclear family in the five decades to follow.

He wrote in 1965 that “The fundamental problem … is that of family structure. The evidence—not final but powerfully persuasive—is that the Negro family in the urban ghettos is crumbling.” On the day his report was released, about one quarter of black kids were living only with their mothers. Moynihan called this a crisis, as indeed it was, but 50 years on between 70 and 75 percent of all black Americans are now born out of wedlock, a tripling of the trend Moynihan had spotted. More than half of Hispanic children are also born out of wedlock today, and 29 percent of white babies.

The goal of the Moynihan Report, he said, had been to begin a serious national conversation about the implications of those sizable numbers of out-of-wedlock births and what they said about the condition of the family and marriage. His fellow liberals believed that the social and cultural pathologies Moynihan had identified could be effectively addressed by an historic expansion of the federal government. President Johnson’s War on Poverty, launched in 1964, was defined in part by a series of programs that would intervene against family and marriage breakdown, helping to arrest, reverse, and eventually eradicate the problems that Moynihan had identified.

But Moynihan was skeptical. Government could not tuck a child into bed at night; government could not save a marriage; government could not help a broken family fall in love again. These were, he said, primarily cultural problems and not economic or political ones—a bold assertion at a time when trust in big government was embraced by members of both parties.

The Manhattan Institute’s Jason Riley—who has written about the continuing relevance of the Moynihan Report—says Johnson’s Great Society programs began a devastating tendency: “Marriage was penalized and single parenting was subsidized. In effect, the government paid mothers to keep fathers out of the home—and paid them well.”

“For decades,” he continues, “research has shown that the likelihood of teen pregnancy, drug abuse, dropping out of school, and many other social problems grew dramatically when fathers were absent.” Riley cites a 2002 study by researchers William Comanor and Llad Phillips of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Their conclusions are sobering: “the most critical factor affecting the prospect that a male youth will encounter the criminal justice system is the presence of his father in the home.”

The tragedy of the Great Society is the manner in which it helped catalyze the destruction of much of the family. In almost all categories that Riley researched—“including income, academic achievement, and employment”—black American families have “stagnated or lost ground over the past half-century.” For instance, the poverty rate for African-Americans is about 30 percent, and four of every 10 black children are raised by single mothers living at or below the poverty line. Statistics are dramatically different for black Americans who are married: the poverty rate is below 10 percent.

“One important lesson of the past half century is that counterproductive cultural habits can hurt a group more than political clout can help it,” Riley writes. “Moynihan was right about that too.” Indeed he was, and devastatingly so.

Lest there be any thought that these trends have only affected black people, nothing could be further from the truth: according to the 2010 census, for the first time in American history more than half of all babies born to American women 30 years of age and under were born out of wedlock.

In 1995, looking back at his four decades in public life, Moynihan was asked what had been the biggest transformation he had observed: “The biggest change, in my judgment, is that the family structure has come apart all over the North Atlantic world.”

So how to think about the moral revolution we are living through a half-century after Moynihan published his famous analysis? It seems to me that culture still leads and is upstream from what is happening in the politics of either party. Morals and manners—more than legislation—primarily shape the direction of great nations. Any hope for regeneration will likely arise from our families with active and involved fathers, churches that foster family cohesiveness, and various ministries and nonprofits that make strong, nuclear families a priority.

The enduring urgency of Moynihan’s work after 50 years confirms what his friend George Will said about “the ecology of a nation,” namely that “the most important business of one generation is the raising of the next generation.” 

Timothy S. Goeglein is the vice president for external relations at Focus on the Family.  An earlier version of this essay appeared in Focus on the Family’s Citizen magazine.