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The Truly Disadvantaged.

. . . And Start Helping the Underclass

Lafeyette Walton lives in a Chicago housing project. He is 12 years old. On his birthday last summer he headed across the project lawn with eight dollars in his pocket, aiming to buy a radio. Then the sound of gunfire intruded, and Lafeyette crawled back home to safety. Gunfire is a sound familiar to him. In the apartment where Lafeyette lives with his mother and his five siblings, the curtains have bullet holes. He's seen two children shot and watched one die on his doorstep. His brother, Pharoah, shakes uncontrollably at loud noises.

The Wall Street Journal told Lafeyettehs now-famous story in October, as six Democratic candidates traveled the country, met in debate, and offered their vision of America's future. They've said a lot about the farm crisis, debt crisis, and trade crisis, and they've trumpeted their leadership and their character. But there hasn't been much said about Lafeyette Walton's crisis, and the crises of millions of others like him. The enduring miseries of inner-city blacks is one of America's greatest problems; why won't the candidates confront it?

By way of contrast, it is useful to remember the presidential campaign that Robert Kennedy began 20 years ago. In its three-month span, Kennedy repeatedly challenged Americans to do something about what he called "the inexcusable and ugly deprivations" of the nascent black underclass. Kennedy got people to listen by combining genuine anger about poverty, which poor blacks understood, with an image of toughness that appealed to conservative whites. He pestered the affluent and the underclass each to take responsibility. As a result, his support included not only blacks and Hispanics but also whites whose second choice for president was George Wallace. Kennedy fashioned the original rainbow coalition and was proving its viability in the primaries when he was shot.

Admittedly, it's harder in some ways for today's candidates to take up an antipoverty crusade. Kennedy had tanks on his side. It's easier to inject a sense of urgency when the cities are filled with rioters. Today the Japanese salary man has replaced angry urban blacks as the focus of American anxiety. With most middle-class Americans happily insulated from the realities of the Waltons' world, these truly are invisible men. It's Lafeyette Walton who's getting shot at, not us.

Meanwhile, most Americans think we've already done enough. In the popular mind, too much money had been spent, too little has resulted, and further effort seems futile. What organized political anger does exist no longer flows out of the ghetto, but rather in the other direction, rich against poor. At the same time, the image of the poor has changed. When Kennedy began speaking out about poverty, the image that encapsulated black deprivation was that of school children facing police dogs and jeering crowds. Now it's the stud of Bill Moyer's documentary, who fathered six children by four women and supported none of them. "Well the majority of the mothers are on welfare," he said. "What I'm not doing, the government does." Any politician trying to quicken the American conscience has a tough image to fight: the poor seem less deserving.

The miseries of the black inner city are especially bitter, as William Julius Wilson reminds us, for they increased "during the very period in which the most sweeping anti-discrimination legislation. . . [was] enacted and implemented." Since 1969, the percentage of black men earning more than $25,000 has grown steadily, but so has the proportion earning less than $5,000. While the movement that crossed the bridge in Selma catapulted millions of blacks into the mainstream of American life, you couldn't prove it by Lafeyette Walton. In The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson attempts to explain why.

Industrial evacuation

He begins with the facts. Consider the Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago's largest housing project. Its 28 brick high rises cover 92 acres and hold about 25,000 people. All of them are black. The average family income in this mini-city, Wilson reports, is $5,470. Ninety-three percent of the families with children are headed by a single parent. Eighty-three percent rely on AFDC payments. Unemployment hangs at about 50 percent. Worst of all: although the project contains about a half-percent of the city's population, it accounts for 11 percent of its murders, 9 percent of its rapes, and 10 percent of its aggravated assaults. Wilson stresses that the rise of communities like this one is something new in America and insists that the word underclass is the right term to describe it. "One cannot deny that there is a heterogenous grouping of inner-city families and individuals whose behavior contrasts sharply with that of mainstream America," he says. Liberals who shrink from the word underclass for terms like lower class or working class "fail to address one of the most important social transformations in recent United States history."

The explosion of crime, pregnant teenagers, and broken families has proved a tough topic for liberals to discuss. The violent denunciations of the Moynihan report made the disintegration of the black family a taboo topic. In the aftermath, liberal arguments ranged from denials that an underclass existed to defenses of matriarchal society to blaming it all on tenacious racism. Conservatives filled the void by pointing to individual sloth or arguing that the government was to blame; welfare policies had encouraged dependency, they said, and softness on crime loosened the strictures on aberrant behavior. The process of liberal intellectual recovery is now well on its way. Wilson, a black sociologist from the University of Chicago and a social democrat, seeks to help it along.

The problem of the black underclass, Wilson argues, has its roots and its solution in economics. It began with the great urban migration that filled cities with unskilled black newcomers through most of the 1960s. During the economic boom that followed World War II, these migrants found solid if unglamorous jobs in factories, freight yards, and on docks. As the manufacturing economy declined and the service economy rose, those jobs began to disappear. The "help wanted" signs not only moved to the suburbs but began demanding college diplomas. And the recessions of the 1970s made good jobs even tougher to find. The effects of unemployment were particularly severe in the black inner city, Wilson argues, because migration left the population disproportionately young and therefore more easily tempted to crime, pregnancy, and welfare dependency.

Wilson, who builds his case with data from Census tracts and Labor Department abstracts, depicts this economic shift in the dust-dry prose of academics. (He packs the words trichotomizing, plurality, and modal into a single sentence.) A more vivid description of what these changes meant to the man on the sidewalk can be found in the Chicago Tribune's lengthy 1985 series on the underclass. The Chicago community of North Lawndale, for example, was once a magnet for black migrants. In its prime, it boasted a Western Electric factory (43,000 jobs), an International Harvester plant (14,000), and the Sears world headquarters (10,000 jobs). Harvester closed down in the later 1960s, Sears moved downtown, and Western Electric is down to 1,000 jobs. Today North Lawndale's economy contains a bank, a supermarket, 48 state lottery agents, 50 currency exchanges, and 99 bars and liquor stores.

This joblessness, Wilson argues, is the central fact of black inner-city life, the fountain from which other sorrows flow. The lack of jobs leaves inner-city men unable to support families. Female-headed households then grow. And as they do, so does the cycle of educational failure, crime, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, and further poverty. It's not welfare or racism that's decimated Lafeyette Walton's world, though Wilson argues those factors may have sped its collapse. Ultimately, it's unemployment.

During this industrial evacuation, Wilson argues, a second development compounded the problems of the inner city; the black middle class left. From te great postware migrations through most of the 1960s, racial segregation lleft the ghettos economically integrated. They were homes to hustlers and thieves but also to doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers, and ministers. When the triumphs of the civil rights movement allowed the black bourgeoisie to leave, two things happened. The institutions of neighborhood life--schools, churches, fraternities--lost their foundations. And the neighborhoods lost their most important role models. Previously, even the children of an unemployed father could look to their neighbors and see a connection between hard work and material reward. No more. The men with alarm clocks moved out and the drug dealers stayed behind.

Wilson argues that without thse role models, there was nothing "to keep alive the perception that education is meaningful, that steady employment is a viable alternative to welfare, and that family stability is the norm, not the exception." With this social transformation of the ghetto, "joblessness as a way of life takes on a different social meaning ... a vicious cycle is perpetuated...."

It is here that Wilson begins to fidget. Having acknowledged a culture component to the decomposition of the black inner city, he is quick to de-emphasize it. He emphatically rejects the term "culture of poverty" to describe ghetto mores and substitutes his wn phrase, "social isolation." The difference, key in Wilson's mind, is that culture of poverty theorists emphasize the extent to which bad values take on a life of their own. By contrast, he wants these behavior patterns to be see as the result of truncated economic opportunity. As the economy gets better, he argues, postive values will emerge.

But Wilson concedes that it would be "dogmatic" to rule out the possibility that "some cultural traits may in fact take on a life of their own for a period of time...." And he approvingly quotes Herbert Gans, that in the acrimonious debate on the primacy of culture versus economics, the truth probably "lies somewhere in between." Unemployment breeds dependency and dependency helps guarantee more unemployment. By Wilson's own analysis, cultural forces are clearly at work and are an important element of inner-city life.

The reasons for this delicate dance become clear when Wilson leaves behind his description of how the underclass arose and tackles the question of what to do about it. Provide jobs, he says: "I have in mind the creation of a macroeconomic policy designed to promote both economic growth and a tight labor market." His reform package carries other suggestions too, as supplemental measures: job training to help the underclass capitalize on an improved labor market; a national standard for welfare benefits; work incentives for welfare recipients; aid to two-parent families; continued affirmative action programs; a universal child support and child care program, similar to those offered in European democracies. but he means to keep the focus on the economy. Economic opportunties create values, is the implicit message of his argument, not the other way around.

Sneak attack

After a persuasive explanation of what's gone wrong in the inner city, the way Wilson soft-peddles the questions of culture doesn't quite satisfy. He is right to stress the need for a better job market. But Vietnamese and other Asian immigrants also face a tough job market, often with the added barrier of language, and typically fare better. Walking across Cambodia and learning to speak English is certainly as formidable a set of obstacles as catching a bus to the suburbs. And while there may not be enough jobs for all the residents of the inner city, there still are some that get passed by. Grab a Washington, D.C. cab and listen to the driver. Chances are he'll tell you in Ethiopian or Turkish or Jamaican accents of his recent arrival and embrace of economic opportunity. While Wilson acknowledges that values affect advancement, his argument that bad values will melt in the face of a good economy is unconvincing.

Wilson's call for fuller employment is important, but so are other calls he declines to make with much vigor. If the relationship between culture and economics is in fact a dynamic one, then the war for better inner-city lives can be fought on more than one front. Throughout the country there are parochial schools that equip ghetto children with the habits and determination needed to escape. Public schools can be pushed in their direction. There are also welfare recipients who state plainly that welfare policies instill apathy. "It makes me lazy," said one of the candid subjects of the Moyers documentary. Work incentives can be strengthened. Anticrime measures--more police, quicker prosecutions--can be boosted. Programs like Head Start, a clear success story, can be copied and expanded. Wilson doesn't deny the usefulness of these reforms. He just doesn't give them much prominence.

In part, it's a matter of political strategy. Wilson calls his plan for full employment and universal benefits like child allowances "a hidden agenda." Straightforward appeals to help the black underclass won't travel very far in the current political climate, he aruges, and need to be wrapped in a more enticing garment. He is right in his assessment of the political mood. Among his various successes, Ronald Reagan has helped assuage the guilt most Americans might feel about neglecting the poor. But in that atmosphere, even Wilson's call for fuller employment is unlikely to find success. Reagan won a sweeping reelection in 1984 with unemployment at more than 7 percent.

It's hard to imagine beating the problems of the underclass with a sneak attack. More likely it'll take a frontalassault, led by a politician with the anger and the credibility to challenge the reign of apathy. It can't be done by ignoring values, but rather by appealing to them. That's where Robert Kennedy's 1968 campaign is instructive.

Plain talk

Kennedy's successes in the primaries can't be dismissed as a quirk of the times or of his charismatic name. Both helped. But if he had the momentum of a socially active decade behind him, he also faced a headwind of conservative reaction. After all, Richard Nixon won in the fall. And while other issues, like his opposition to the Vietnam war, were essential to his candidacy, his pronouncements on poverty played an increasingly prominent role, particularly after Lyndon Johnson withdrew. When he won the Indiana primary, he grabbed 85 percent of the black vote and captured all seven counties that had gone for Wallace four years earlier.

Kennedy's appeal rested in a combination of his concern and his credibility. He expressed outrage at the conditions of migrant camps and New York tenements. Yet he also had the inheritance of his experience as a prosecutor behind him and a reputation for "ruthlessness" that made him seem tough. After all, Kennedy came to national prominence by putting someone in jail (Jimmy Hoffa) and by being his brother's tough-guy campaign manager. Even his body language reinforced the image of toughness: flat stomach, 50-mile hikes, dives in the cold sea. No pear-shaped Stevenson egghead was he.

While Kennedy was in many ways a conventional politician willing to make the rubber-chicken rounds, he also had a penchant for blurting out unpopular things. When he did, he didn't speak the language of hidden agendas, as Wilson would suggest, but that of social responsibility.

In Indiana, Kennedy went before a group of medical students to talk of "intolerable conditions attributable ... to the neglect and indifference of men."

"When are you going to get the money for these federally subsidized programs you're talking about?" asked one student.

"From you," Kennedy shot back.

(Picture the same scene being replayed in the current campaign. Jackson: "From the Pentagon." Dukakis: "From better tax collection." Gephard: "From reductions in the trade imbalance.")

Kennedy also talked plainly about race, not couching his antipoverty appeals in the universal language of employment.

"Let me say something about the tone of these questions," he continued with the medical students. "I look around this room and I don't see many black faces who will become doctors.... You are the privileged ones here. It's easy to sit back and say it's the fault of the federal government, but it's our responsibility, too. It's our society, not just our government."

Heard any candidates saying that to the AMA recently? During the same campaign, Kennedy began a breakfast meeting with 150 women in Terre Haute with a typical glad-to-be-here speech. By the end, irked at their complacency, he spoke what was on his mind. "I am stunned," he said, "by the lack of awareness of the rest of us toward [the poor] and their problems."

Kennedy didn't save his challenges for medical students or the ladies of the garden club. When he went to Watts, he talked not just about racial injustice, but about law and order too. "I tell you here in California the same thing I told those in Alabama with whom I talked," he said. "The gulf between our people will not be bridged by those who preach violence, or by those who burn and loot ... such anarchy is intolerable."

Similarly, when Kennedy unveiled his antipoverty program in Bedford Stuyvesant, he again invoked the lanaguage of values and responsibility. He brought a formidable phalanx of Establishment support with him. I.M. Pei helped with the neighborhood design; IBM relocated a plant and offered jobs. But in talking to the residents, Kennedy stressed that the responsibility for community uplift remained their own. "Only you can mobilize the workers, enlist the young people in training programs, induce others to continue or resume their education...." he said. "Always there will be work--ceaseless, untiring effrt."

What the current presidential campaign needs is someone willing to say similar things--to challenge the complacent middle American to help the underclass while challenging the underclass to help itself.

Jesse Jackson sometimes comes close. He deserves credit for his fire and for his willingness to tell inner-city kids to study and avoid drugs and pregnancy. But there's also the scent of the demagogues about him, whether in rushing off to the "Today Show" with Maritin Luther King's blood on his shirt or etting off to the latest world hot spot. and his racist remarks call his own values into question, and leave him unable to speak to the exliberals who have floated off in the Reagan tide and need to be pulled back ashore.

While the candidates duck the challenge, Lafeyette Walton waits.
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Author:DeParle, Jason
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1988
Words:3033
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