Bringing the exiles home

`WE'VE got to help those people feel that they're connected to the rest of us.'' Thus was urban expert Adam Walinsky quoted in the just-completed Monitor series, ``Exiles among us: poor and black in America,'' by Kristin Helmore and Karen Laing.

Mr. Walinsky is right. The presence in America of a black underclass, apparently so cut off from hope, is morally unacceptable. A number of mutually reinforcing factors have historically kept blacks off the ladder that other immigrant groups have climbed to success.

That has changed for many blacks as a result of new opportunities for education, employment, and housing. But as the series reported, one-third of black Americans live below the poverty line.

Bringing these ``exiles'' home won't be a matter of one quick, easy formula. The Monitor series, however, suggests several elements that will surely help.

The black poor, like all other human beings, need to be valued and to value themselves. They need goals and the feeling that their goals are attainable. They need role models of positive achievement in productive activities.

The notion of some sort of race-based ``ghetto pathology'' needs to be extirpated from people's thinking.

The black entrepreneurial class must be developed and strengthened, and new ways to capitalize black businesses must be found. It is start-up businesses, and not large corporations, that are the main source of new jobs, which more than anything else are what the black community needs. Locally owned enterprises in black neighborhoods, particularly those providing a product or service that can be ``exported'' to the larger community, will create jobs for blacks and pay wages and generate profits that will ``turn over'' locally, not drain away to corporate headquarters somewhere else.

The endless debate over ``welfare'' needs to be informed less by ideology and more by careful thinking about how public aid can best be used to ``empower'' individuals and families. A number of those in the think-tank establishment see ``welfare'' as ``antifamily,'' on grounds that having a regular check sometimes enables a woman to leave a miserable if not life-threatening marriage. But the notion that the ``family'' is somehow served when economic need, i.e., a cutoff of welfare payments, forces a woman to remain with an abusive husband should be denounced as pernicious nonsense.

The concerns of black men - particularly their need for jobs - demand attention. Even during the labor-intensive 1940s black men were kept from the factories, the union halls, and the offices. This has affected their ability to provide for their families, which in turn is closely linked with their sense of fatherhood. The Monitor series debunks the myth that black men are not good fathers.

A better grasp of the dynamics of the black underclass is a good first step in bringing these exiles home.

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