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Books Matter

by Jean Hardisty

In the 1970s I interviewed an elderly labor historian named Morris Schnapper. He told stories of his lifelong work exposing anti-union dirty tricks and government antilabor programs. At one point he told me about how the CIA had created a publishing house that served as a front to publish books that carried the cold war and anti-union line. These books were covert propaganda, designed to spread the views that the government wanted its citizens to believe. He pointed to a shelf of books in his study—all published by the CIA. He said, quite sadly, that of all the abuses he had documented, this one hurt him the most, because “A book is a sacred thing. And there they are. They’ll sit on library shelves for decades to come, filled with lies.”

I too think a book can be a sacred thing, yielding explosive insights that we couldn’t have seen by ourselves. Books have dramatically expanded my world and influenced my thinking. Books also influence society as a whole. We are often swayed in our analysis of events, our public policy formulation, and our national beliefs by books.

Think of Michael Herrington’s 1962 Hunger in America, a book that exposed the destitution of many people who lived their lives out of sight of the media. Hunger in America gave an enormous boost to President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty social programs. Then think of The Bell Curve, the loathsome 1994 book by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, which argues that white people are intellectually superior. The Bell Curve provided intellectual “legitimacy” to the racial views of the New Right.

Perhaps nowhere do books have more social impact than when they form the basis for public policy. But a book that is popular with policy-makers is not necessarily a high-quality book. It is not necessarily accurate, clear, or even readable. “Bad” books can be even more influential than “good” books.

Let’s examine the trail of books that leads to the current Bush administration policy to promote marriage as the cure for poverty. This $1.5 billion, federally funded effort targets welfare recipients and relies heavily on faith-based programs to counsel them to marry. What is the evidence to support marriage as a panacea for the poverty of low-income women? Who benefits from this policy? And what role did books play in creating it?

One powerful starting place is Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 study of the black family, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Moynihan, a Democratic Party loyalist and Kennedy administration insider who later became a senator, concluded that the rolls of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main welfare program at the time) had swelled with black women recipients because black men had abandoned their families. But Moynihan’s enduring policy message is his assertion that the dominance of the black family by women (a matriarchy, as he calls it) is damaging to the black community because it violates the dominant white norm of family “egalitarianism” (an assertion he makes in 1965!). The heritage of slavery, said Moynihan, had disorganized the black community. Moynihan’s narrative, which attempts to be sympathetic to the “negro” (and was thus politically liberal), never considers that AFDC was originally set up by the federal government to serve white widows. It opened its rolls to African American women only in the early 1960s, under social and legal pressure.

Moynihan condemns the “often reversed roles of husband and wife” in black families, which he says result in a “tangle of pathology” in the African American community. With his report, the notion of a black “pathology” caused by the “deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro American” entered the public mind.

The report was condemned by columnist Carl Rowan; James Farmer, director of the Congress of Racial Equality; Bayard Rustin of the A. Philip Randolph Institute; Whitney Young of the National Urban League; sociologists Christopher Jenks and Herbert Gans; and Martin Luther King Jr., among many others. Nevertheless Moynihan’s ideas, legitimized by his credentials, became a touchstone of conservative and right-wing policy for decades to come.

Building on Moynihan’s argument, George Gilder, a sociologist, produced two books that reinforce the thesis that social troubles are attributable to a family model of “female dominance.” The first, Sexual Suicide (1973), is a breezy, surly book-length diatribe on the evils of feminism. It promotes the traditional patriarchal family as the best means yet known to curb the animal appetites of men and turn them into productive members of society.

Gilder might have been dismissed as a crank social analyst were it not for the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as president in 1981. Reagan and his circle of advisors were devotees of Gilder’s 1981 book, Wealth and Poverty. Written in decorous language and dressed up with statistics, Wealth and Poverty served as a handbook of social policy during Reagan’s two terms. Adam Meyerson, a Wall Street Journal columnist, described it in 1981 as “a best-seller and the most hotly discussed book in Washington.” In it, Gilder restates the Moynihan “anti-matriarchy” analysis, but makes an additional case for free-market capitalism rather than liberal social programs as the cure for poverty. According to Gilder, wealth is there for the taking under capitalism, and social service programs discourage hard work.

This argument perfectly matched the Reagan administration’s ideology. Reagan himself passed out Wealth and Poverty to one and all to justify supply-side economics and cuts in both taxes and welfare. During the Reagan years, a drive to destroy liberalism began that in due course resulted in the Clinton administration’s 1996 Welfare Reform Bill. That bill cut welfare benefits, established time limits, opened the door to family cap provisions, and introduced punitive measures to remove women from the welfare rolls.

Just as President Clinton was signing the Welfare Reform Act, the religious right was mounting massive Promise Keeper rallies. These Christian revivals, for men only, were designed to teach men the importance of their role as husbands and fathers. The secular parallel to the Promise Keeper movement was an emerging body of conservative men’s activism, the fatherhood movement. Its manifesto is a 1999 book, The Fatherhood Movement, edited by Wade F. Horn, David Blankenhorn, and Mitchell B. Pearlstein. In it, the editors and contributors argue that a family must be headed by a father to be functional and healthy. In 2001, Horn was appointed assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services and put in charge of the Bush administration’s programs for welfare recipients. The centerpiece of his policy implementation has been to fund marriage promotion, thus attempting to ensure the presence of a father in low-income families. Horn draws into one policy the ideas and observations of right-wing authors (and activists) traceable all the way back to the 1965 Moynihan Report.

As is often the case, the books that are especially influential in the public policy sphere were written by men. Women have authored many (though not by any means all) of the important books that contradict the rightist proposals of these male authors, including The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty (1994) by Jill Quadagno; Welfare’s End (1998) by Gwendolyn Mink; and Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2002) by Dorothy Roberts. Unfortunately, these books are little-known outside academic circles; they certainly are not passed out by presidents.

Just one of the books that refutes marriage promotion policies is Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (2005), by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. The authors interviewed a multiracial sample of low-income, unmarried women living in inner-city areas to ask them why they chose motherhood but not marriage. They found that, contrary to popular ideas, many low-income women highly value marriage and hope to marry at some point. But the women interviewed for this study have a very different worldview from that of middle-class women. For the low-income women interviewed, having children at a young age is a positive event—it gives young women’s lives structure and purpose. In contrast, marriage carries far more risks, since among this group divorce is shunned as failure. The women fear losing control over their children to a husband; and, in any case, the father of their children is often not interested in marriage.

This research supports the wisdom of liberal programs that support young, low-income mothers’ struggles to make ends meet and finish their education before going to work. The book has attracted very little attention and has had little impact on policy-makers, though its conclusions are grounded in solid research and it is well-written, clear, and readable.

All books have consequences, but some books are more influential in the public sphere than others. The gender and ideology of an author can sink a book’s fortunes. We need to watch for books that are outside the ideological mainstream, especially when that mainstream is as right wing as ours today. Many bestselling and influential books don’t deserve the attention they attract—but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

Jean Hardisty is the founder and president emerita of Political Research Associates and a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women.