Forty years after the Moynihan report, the tragic saga of the modern black family is common knowledge. But the tale of family breakdown in modern America is no longer a story delimited to a single ethnic minority. Today the family is also in crisis for this country's ethnic majority: the so-called white American population.
The crisis in the white family has attracted curiously little attention from commentators and policymakers. Yet by many of the criteria of the Moynihan report, today's white American family looks to be at least as troubled as the black family of the early 1960s.
Consider trends in out-of-wedlock births. By 2002, 28.5 percent of babies of white mothers were born outside marriage in this country. Over the past generation, the white illegitimacy rate has exploded, quadrupling since 1975, when the level was 7.1 percent. The overall illegitimacy rate for whites is higher than it was for black mothers (23.6 percent) when the Moynihan report sounded its alarm.
Moreover, with 75 percent-plus of their babies born outside marriage, white teens now have much higher illegitimacy rates than the black American teens of the early and mid-1960s. Indeed, in 2002, a white mother younger than 30 was more likely to have an illegitimate child than a black mother was in 1970.
White illegitimacy rates look somewhat lower if the non-Hispanic white population is examined apart from Hispanic Americans. Even so, in 2002, the illegitimacy rate for "white Anglos"--as Euro-Americans are sometimes called--was 23 percent--virtually identical to levels 40 years earlier for black mothers.
Today no state in the Union has an Anglo illegitimacy ratio as low as 10 percent. Even in predominantly Mormon Utah, every eighth non-Hispanic white infant is born out of wedlock.
What about family instability and fatherlessness? As of 2001, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study released earlier this month, every fifth white child under 18 was living in a single-parent home. Roughly a third of America's white children, furthermore, were living in a home without both biological parents--and 2 percent to 3 percent of white children lived with neither biological parent. Here again, white American trends have reached Moynihan report levels.
The "tangle of pathology" described in the Moynihan report is also increasingly apparent in white America. Welfare dependence, for example, is far more prevalent among white families than is commonly appreciated. Notwithstanding the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, as of 2002, roughly 29 percent of white children and nearly 24 percent of Anglo children lived in families accepting at least one form of means-tested public assistance. In other words, welfare program participation rates among white children today are close to twice as high as they were among black children at the time of the Moynihan report.
And despite a decade of dropping crime statistics, criminality is leaving a growing mark on white youth. As of 2004, 1.6 percent of all Anglo men in their 20s and 30s were behind bars--roughly twice the rate as recently as 1980.
Prescient as it was, in retrospect we can see that the Moynihan report was off the mark in one key respect. It suggested that family breakdown was a distinctive problem for African-Americans due to their unique and painful legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. The scars of American racism, however, can hardly explain the disintegration of white families in America over the past four decades--much less the growing instability of families in affluent democracies on other continents.
At this writing, for example, the illegitimacy ratio has topped 40 percent in both France and Britain, and more than 20 percent of Germany's families with children are headed by single parents. And across the Pacific, "Asian values" no longer confer blanket inoculation against family decay: In 2003, South Korea recorded 56 divorces for every 100 marriages.
Clearly, the crisis of the family is not just a "black thing." In practically all of today's rich, free societies, the family is in trouble. But what accounts for this novel worldwide social illness? Perhaps we need a new Moynihan report to train an unflinching gaze on this profound and disturbing question.
Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at AEI.