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Cohen refutes claims about the chilling effects of the Moynihan Report

Fifty years later, culture is still not a sufficient explanation for systemic poverty

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a study that blamed black poverty on “ghetto culture”, failure to marry, and absent black fathers. Fifty years later, this explanation for black poverty is still controversial. In a recent interview, MPRC faculty associate Philip Cohen rejected the claim that liberal scholars have stopped investigating cultural explanations for black poverty because they are too afraid of being accused of blaming the victim. Cohen says that social scientists have moved toward structural, rather than cultural, explanations for poverty because structural explanations make more sense. “It wasn’t that people were afraid, it’s that they didn’t agree,” Cohen said. “There was actually an explosion of research focused on black family resilience, extended families, and non-kin family networks that allowed people to survive in really harsh conditions, rather than beating up on people for not being married.”

As an explanation for why black communities tend to be less well off than white ones, culture simply doesn’t stand up as an explanation. Cohen says, “The predominant view now is that there is a specific condition of inner-city concentrated poverty in black communities, because of racial segregation and racism, and the structural conditions are very damaging to family life, family relationships. People lose jobs and housing because of incarceration, job discrimination, etc., which create real create real obstacles to family stability, which in turn is a challenging condition for children’s development. We have a pretty good consensus that family instability is a hurdle for children’s development, but there is not a consensus that this stems from the bad decisions of people not to get married.”

Read the interview on

Read Cohen's letter to the editor in the New York Times

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Read a related story in the Deseret News

Read a related story on The Final Call

Link to a briefing paper on a related subject

Read Philip Cohen’s blog, Family Inequality