In Miles to Go, Daniel Patrick Moynihan argues that the poverty reduction methods we developed to reform society in the 20th century worked because although poor, the target communities were essentially “stable, settled populations” with large amounts of social capital and intact families.

In contrast, too many communities and families today lack stability, so the test for new social efforts, Moynihan argues is that whatever else they do they must find ways to support and strengthen families. He says: “family structure will prove to be the primary setting in which social capital…is amassed or dissipated” and “family structure may now prove to be the principal conduit of social class status.”

The implications could not be more dramatic for education. School based reforms do nothing to solve the situation of homes and communities that have few reserves of social capital and do not provide a strong foundation for learning. They thus fail to pass Moynihan’s test.

As the 21st century dawns, we seem to be studiously ignoring Moynihan’s argument.  The situation is all too reminiscent of how his ideas were treated in the mid 1960’s when he warned of the fragility of the black family.  It was easier to attack him as a racist and ignore the growing problems that black and indeed all American families were about to face.

Military analysts often say that we fight the last war, meaning that we use tools created for another time to solve the problems of today.   Moynihan’s warning and other entries in this blog suggest that we are doing the same thing today with school reform: using old approaches that do little to increase the underlying social capital in families and communities.



  • Moynihan, D. P. (1996). Miles to go: A personal history of social policy. (pp. 212-230).