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Family and Nation : THE GODKIN LECTURES, HARVARD UNIVERSITY by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $12.95; 167 pp.)

March 23, 1986|Bryce Nelson | Nelson, formerly a reporter in Washington for The Times, is director and professor at the School of Journalism of the University of Southern California. and

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senior senator from New York, very much wants us to care about what he terms the growing, connected problems of family disintegration and the poverty stricken lives of all too many American children.

What saddens Moynihan is that important people in Washington and elsewhere seem to have given up on meeting these complexities. In his book, "Family and Nation," based on his 1985 Godkin lectures at Harvard, he says that officials in Ronald Reagan's Washington not only do not enact social legislation but no longer even bother to propose it. "Family policy is no one's business at present," writes Moynihan, a Democrat, while acknowledging that the country's inattention precedes the current Administration.

Moynihan wants to call our attention again to difficult facts. More than a quarter of our families are now headed by a single parent, overwhelmingly by women, double the percentage in 1970. More than half the families with children headed by women are below the poverty level, four times the rate of two-parent families. In 1984, children, who were 27% of the population, were 40% of those in poverty.

What the nation has done in the last 25 years is to rearrange the common age of poverty, thus making the United States, Moynihan writes, "the first society in history in which a person is more likely to be poor if young rather than old." The elderly have been bolstered by larger Social Security and Medicare payments, while children are increasingly reared by single women who find it difficult to get the jobs or aid to provide for them.

Moynihan's concern for poor children came to national attention more than 20 years ago when he warned of the social dangers in the growing proportion of female-headed families and illegitimate children in the black community. Attacked then by some as a purveyor of "racist" ideas, Moynihan says that he got "a bloody nose" from his efforts.

In the mid-1980s, his argument is that family disorganization is now rampant among all races and groups. While only about 10% of white families with children had a female head in 1970, this percentage has now more than doubled.

Moynihan made his living as a Harvard social scientist before entering political life; his arguments are strengthened by constant use of census and demographic data. But what the reader longs for in this sea of statistics is a voice like that of another Harvard lecturer, psychiatrist Robert Coles, who educates us by listening to one poor child at a time. Overwhelmed by Moynihan's focus on the mass needs of 13 million poor children in the United States, we may lose hope that we can help any particular one of them.

That is the last thing that he would want us to do, whether we are conservatives or liberals. He argues that the conservatives, who are oriented to preserving the traditional family, and liberals, oriented to alleviating poverty through political means, can join together to assist the impoverished family group.

Moynihan offers several political proposals to alleviate child poverty and strengthen the family. He advocates a national, federally funded standard for benefits under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program; job training for women on welfare; greater legal efforts to force absent fathers to support their children; tax deductions or reimbursement for the costs that low-income families pay in adoption, and a concerted effort to discourage pregnancy by those unable to care for their children.

The keystone of Moynihan's plan to help the working poor is the reversal of the trend toward making them pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes. He notes that the federal personal and dependent tax exemption of $600 had increased to only $1,000 by 1984. To have kept pace with inflation, the exemption for each child and adult would have had to grow to almost $2,600. A larger exemption would help the working poor a great deal. But this and many of Moynihan's recommendations would be difficult to implement in a national capital deeply influenced by the need to cut the federal deficit and by President Reagan's insistence that he will reform the federal welfare system in this term of office.

The main strength of Moynihan's work is not as a systematic analysis of the cures and causes of childhood poverty and family disintegration. Indeed, the lectures seem almost a tape recording of the remarks made by an avuncular teacher as he rambles around the stage talking to a sympathetic audience. While sometimes chuckling, our teacher takes his subject seriously. He is at his best when he leaves his statistics-stuffed notes on the lectern and talks to us from the heart.

Moynihan, one of the last liberal politicians in the United States to seem unashamed of his convictions, says he has performed his task if he prods us to speak about those children who are now growing up poor. Moynihan has written a worthwhile, sometimes passionate, work of political and moral commentary to help stimulate our national debate.

As his closing thought for his Harvard audience, Moynihan said, "A commonplace of political rhetoric has it that the quality of a civilization may be measured by how it cares for its elderly. Just as surely, the future of a society may be forecast by how it cares for its young."

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