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  Closing of the Frontier
  Scientific Racism
  The Children's Bureau
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  The Feminine Mystique
  The Moynihan Report
  Broken Windows
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Glenn Loury Interview

Glenn Loury is Director of the Institute on Race and Social Division, and Professor of Economics at Boston University. 

He is the author of One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America.

Glenn Loury

Glenn Loury Professor of economics and 
Director of the Institute on Race and Social Division at Boston University

Question: Could you briefly describe what the Moynihan Report said? 

Glenn Loury: The Moynihan Report takes up the question of what would be necessary to bring African Americans more fully into a status of equal opportunity in American society at a time when the civil rights movement appears to have achieved its goals. He talks about the Negro family, as it was called then, and argues that a major impediment to equal opportunity for African Americans would be that the family structure among blacks was weaker, more single parent families, out of wedlock births. That this was a trend that was increasing in the years after the Second World War, and was becoming a major problem. 

Question: What was the reaction to the Moynihan Report at the time? 

Glenn Loury: I think it's fair to say there was a firestorm of negative reaction to the report. And quite a bit has been written about that by commentators and historians. Basically, Moynihan was accused by people of blaming the victims. In fact, the phrase "blaming the victim" was invented by one writer in reaction to the Moynihan report, the politics of controversy that ensued after the report. Blaming the victim because, by pointing to cultural factors, specifically childbearing, marriage and family formation, he was saying somehow, the critics thought, it's their fault that they're in this bad condition. So that was one objection. 

Another objection, of course, is that here we have a white social scientist and political actor passing judgment on the quality of moral life in some ways among blacks. So he was accused of racism. And finally I think there were some with a little bit more justice than those first two groups of critics who said that he was drawing quick and simplistic conclusions about historical causation which the data did not permit him to draw. 

Question: Would you say that Moynihan was emphasizing cultural issues over economic issues, was he putting cultural issues on the same level as economic issues? 

Glenn Loury: He was certainly emphasizing cultural issues. I don't know that it's fair to say he was putting them ahead of economic issues because, after all, at the end of the day, Moynihan's report recommends as a response to the problem that he identified, that economic measures be taken. He says put on another shift at the Post Office, increase employment opportunities; he draws a direct link between trends in family structure, which had gone negative among blacks, and trends in the employment of black males, which were also in some ways problematic. And even though the economy was booming, and even though economic opportunity for blacks was certainly improving in these years, we now know when we look back that there were difficulties and that those difficulties were really quite pronounced. Moynihan was linking those difficulties to cultural factors, but not exclusively understanding them in cultural terms. 

Question: Some people 35 years ago thought that out of wedlock births were not going to be a big problem. Today, how do social scientists view illegitimacy, out of wedlock birth rates? Do they see it as a cause for problems for children? 

Glenn Loury: I think today, if you were to go around and talk with social scientists about the importance of out of wedlock births, of illegitimacy, you'd get essentially two schools of thought. One, which you would identify with people center to right-of-center, would be that this is a fundamental issue, illegitimacy is at the core of much of the problem in American society at the lower end. From others you would get the view, I think, that this has been exaggerated in importance, and it is really symptomatic of other deeper problems that are in need of addressing. So we ought not look simply to illegitimacy, we ought to look behind the illegitimacy numbers and think about what's going on there. 

But the thing that you will not find today in my judgment that you certainly would have found 35 years ago is people saying about illegitimacy, "What's the problem? There's no issue here. There are many different ways in which people can raise children, and one of them may happen to be the mother alone. Of course, she will be nested within a community of supports, and we don't need a traditional two-parent, two-child, two-car in-the-garage family. There are many different paths." That kind of argument, it seems to me, is no longer credible in American public discourse. 

Question: The Moynihan Report talks about the "tangle of pathology," and one string in there is crime. Can you talk about how crime has affected the black community in its various ways, its victims of crime, and also young men ending up in jail? 

Glenn Loury: Moynihan talks about what he calls the "tangle of pathology," a part of which is crime. Now, we all know anybody awake in America knows crime is a salient political issue, but I think it may be less well-known how tortuous an issue crime is for the black community itself because of the fact that blacks are, at one in the same time, more likely to be somehow involved in the criminal justice system and end up incarcerated, but also more likely to be the victims of criminal behavior in the cities around the country. In fact, the racial disproportion in the incidents of victimization is nearly as great, and in some instances greater, than is the racial disproportion and the incidents of the conviction and incarceration for crime. 

So, blacks have something of a dilemma, I would say. On the one hand, of course, black communities have the most to gain from tough anti-crime policies because they are disproportionately victimized. On the other hand, many in the black community feel that the burden of law enforcement falls disproportionately on their youngsters who may for a variety of reasons find themselves in trouble with the law and are held to such tough account. 

Question: How does the Moynihan Report stand today in the year 2000? 

Glenn Loury: I have to say it looks pretty good. A fairly prescient piece of social forecasting would, I think, have to be a fair-minded person's judgment. I wish I could produce a document that would look as good 35 years from now as that one did. 

I mean, what Moynihan saw in 1965 was a quarter of African American children born out of wedlock. What we have today is going-on 70 percent of African American children born out of wedlock. What Moynihan hinted at in 1965 was that there could be a substantial number of blacks who, despite the extension of equal opportunity, would still languish in ghettos and continue to live in poverty. What we see today in the year 2000 is that a substantial number of African Americans, despite the expansion of opportunity, still live in ghettos, languish in poverty, and are outside the orbit of American opportunity. Moynihan suggested that the task of bringing blacks fully into the American society would require more than simply stopping employers from discriminating and changing welfare policy, or whatever it might be. What everybody, I think, understands today is that that is, indeed the case. So, I don't think it's close. The report looks pretty good in retrospect. 

Question: Some people have said that we are now experiencing a new economy. Do you think that the old pattern of big booms, big busts are behind us, and we're in what some might call a "Goldilocks economy" - not too hot, not too cold, but moving along at a good pace? 

Glenn Loury: Well, I have to say as an economist I'm a little skeptical about all this talk about the new economy. I don't think, frankly, anybody knows what is happening just now. We don't have yet enough distance from events to be able to really analyze deeper causes. There are changes going on, with information technology and the rest, that will, I think, no doubt show themselves in terms of the structure of American economic relations, and behavior. But, to conclude that the business cycle has been repealed, that we don't have to worry about recessions anymore, that all bets are off, and we're in a whole new world, I think is premature. 

We've been, thankfully, enjoying the benefits of a long economic expansion during the 1990s. But, I think we would be very unwise, indeed, if we did not count on the expansion coming to an end, and our having to deal with a period of recession and a rise of unemployment, as has been the case throughout economic history of the United states, going back to the late eighteenth century. 

Question: But would you agree that in the last fifty years that our recessions have been less deep than they were in the first half of the century? 

Glenn Loury: I think there's no doubt that the swings in the economic cycle have been less severe than was the case earlier in American history, have been less severe since, let's say, the end of World War II. No great depressions anymore, and I think we can be relatively confident that we won't be seeing great depressions again, because I think we can be relatively confident that we won't make the mistakes of policy that allowed the Great Depression to be as deep and protracted as it turned out to be. We know a little bit more about managing the economy in the year 2000 than we knew in the year 1932. 

On the other hand, we have in the post-Vietnam era experienced some fairly deep, protracted recessions, the early 1980s, the early 1990s, and that is an experience that I think we would be wise to expect will repeat itself. 

Question: We live in a period now of immigration, not quite as great as earlier in the century, but close. What are some of the economic effects of immigration on wages, and what are some of its cultural effects? 

Glenn Loury: Immigration is definitely one of the most important social, political, economic phenomena that's occurring in American life in the last part of the twentieth century. I would be inclined to agree with the economist George Borjas who I think is certainly one of the leading students of this question, that there are both benefits and costs, in economic terms, of immigration. The benefits are easy to see, people come, they go to work, they add to our labor force, they're prepared to supply their services to us at wages that allow us as consumers to enjoy the products they contribute, at cheaper prices. That is a good. 

As consumers, and as owners of firms and employed labor of immigrants, Americans are made better off by immigration. But, there are also costs of immigration, which I believe can be reckoned in economic terms. Namely, by bidding down the wages of workers for those kinds of work where immigrants are supplying themselves, the economic circumstances of relatively vulnerable domestic American workers can be harmed by immigration. Again, I don't think there's really any doubt about the fact that immigration does hurt some Americans, by making it harder for them to get higher wages. 

So we have a trade off. There are benefits of immigration, and there are also costs. The benefits in terms of cheaper, eager labor to help we Americans produce the products that we want to consume. The costs are in terms of making it more difficult to equalize the economic circumstances of some Americans who are at the bottom of the heap, because they now have more competition for their labor, as a result of immigration. 

Question: With this increased immigration we again are seeing high rates intermarriage of Asians and Hispanics, and whites. Are we going to see a new American man and woman in the next generation or two? 

Glenn Loury: Immigration raises the questions of social integration, intermarriage, and what will the American of the next century look like, in that we have Hispanic and Asian, and Caribbean, and European peoples mixing together now in much greater numbers. That's the kind of speculation that perhaps a Senator Moynihan is more given to than am I. But, I will allow myself this. All bets are going to be off in my judgment, fifty years from now with respect to questions of race and ethnicity. That is, we're going to be making up a new script in the next few decades about who we are, what are the groups, and how do the groups relate. 

It seems to me that intermarriage is the key to this, because you have not only multi-ethnic couples, but you have, if you like, multi-ethnic children. Those children are going to have to choose "what they are, who they are." Just as in any time in American history when, let's say, Polish Catholic immigrants, and Russian Jewish immigrants found themselves mingling together, and to some extent marrying, and the identity questions for their children were posed in those times, we will now have white, and Asian, and Hispanic, and some, although to a much lesser extent, black multi-ethnic families, and children having to decide who they are and what their identities will be. That is a very interesting drama that I look forward in my old age to observing. But I don't think anybody is going to be able to predict what will happen there.


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