Do Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Issues with his Father Help Explain Mass Incarceration?

Historians in the News
tags: welfare state, racism, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Moynihan Report, Mass Incarceration


How One Guy’s Daddy Issues Inspired Mass Incarceration from Ben Tumin on Vimeo.


Hello, I’m Ben Tumin, and welcome to Skipped History. Today’s story is about Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I read about him and the 1960s in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, by Elizabeth Hinton; Race for Profit, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and an article in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Oh, Dannny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling... or was it the hooks?

When he was 10 years old, Daniel’s father left his family, plunging them into poverty and forcing them to move to New York. To help out his mom, Moynihan worked at the docks in Manhattan, and in 1943, at an entry exam for City College, he insisted on testing with a longshoreman’s loading hook in his back pocket lest he ‘be mistaken for any sissy kid.’ Yeah dressing like a pirate did trip him up when he got to question 6, “Claustrophobia leads to avoiding (a) rabbits (b) enclosed spaces (c) challenging salty sea dogs to duels!” but that’s the thing about Daniel: he was more style than substance. And after later studying sociology at the London School of Economics, where he adopted the mannerisms of an English aristocrat, Daniel charmed his way into a job as an aide at the US Department of Labor. There, he would help lay the groundwork for mass incarceration, which not coincidentally disproportionately affects Black people today.

Oh, Danny Boy.

Although we often associate incarceration with Reagan / the War on Drugs / Nixon / and “law and order,” they’re not the only ones responsible for the US today imprisoning more people than any country in the world. Because before there was a War on Drugs, there was a War on Crime, which LBJ initiated in response to repeated outbreaks of violence over the five summers of his presidency. From 1963-1969, hundreds of Black Americans died, thousands of officers and civilians were injured, and billions of dollars of property was destroyed. (Don’t worry, there was no Chuck E. Cheese yet, so the animatronic animals were unharmed.)

Why were people so heated? Well, as we’ve covered, there was a lot of structural inequality, and according to a Washington Post poll in 1967, “7 in every ten Negroes [said] that lack of decent housing contributed to the riots.” To his credit, LBJ responded by launching the War on Poverty, which created programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and by passing civil rights legislation like the Voting Rights Act. But he also came to see the protests less as a response to things like oppressive living conditions and more as a manifestation of the breakdown of Black American families. Why? Well, thanks to an internal government report in March of 1965 and which was drafted by, you guessed it, Danny Boy.

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