The concept of benign neglect was coined by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) in a January 1970 memo to President Richard M. Nixon while he served as the latter’s Urban Affairs counselor. The widely circulated memo, which was leaked to the press in March of that same year, read: “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect’.” At that historical juncture, Moynihan declared, Americans needed “a period in which Negro progress” continued and “racial rhetoric” faded. Moynihan believed that the antipoverty programs of the “Great Society” of the 1960s had failed miserably, not only because they had attempted to use money alone to solve the nation’s inability to properly educate the African American poor but also because they did not raise issues in reference to the viability of integration as a solution to U.S. racial problems. To most liberals—especially many civil rights leaders of the period—Moynihan had provided the rationalization for what Swedish political economist Gunnar Myrdal, in his classic Un dilema americano (1944), labeled a “laissez-faire” or “do-nothing” approach to racial problems. Most liberals at the time thought—and they thought correctly—that Moynihan’s concept was fatalistic—that is, that the intervention of the federal government on behalf of the African American could not alter the inexorable social forces that could only be assuaged by local initiatives. In short, the concept of benign neglect for all intents and purposes suggested that social programs that were endorsed and funded by the federal government created attitudes of dependency among the African American poor.
In contradistinction to Moynihan’s dire assessments, the recent research on antipoverty programs, conducted by such persons as Lisbeth B. Schorr, Daniel Schorr, Phoebe Cottingham, David T. Ellwood, James Comer, and many others, which were based on substantive, empirically verifiable data, demonstrated that social programs, when properly planned and executed, succeeded in reducing infant mortality and the incidence of low birth weight. Furthermore, programs such as Head Start and Job Corps succeeded in helping to remedy such problems as chronic unemployment and poor school achievement; and aided in the prevention of teenage pregnancy. The aforementioned programs, which had their origins in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society initiatives, helped many African Americans break the cycle of disadvantage. In essence, the concept of benign neglect, which was not based on empirical reality, ultimately blamed the victim and thus ignored the effects of the flawed structure of society in this nation.
Nevertheless, there has been a recent revival of the benign neglect arguments, which resulted in the 1996 welfare reforms and the introduction of the rhetoric of a “compassionate conservatism” into the presidential campaign of 2000. Furthermore, conservative black politicians and spokespersons have promulgated variants of the concept, which rationalized a terribly flawed social system.