US Renewal Is Key Urban League Theme

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ECONOMIC and social solutions for United States cities, education challenges amid dramatic demographic changes, the backward slide of affirmative action, and AIDS were the central concerns of the National Urban League's annual conference, which ended here yesterday.

As outlined in the keynote speech by Urban League president John Jacob, southern California's growing ethnic diversity, racial divisions, and economic plight in the wake of post-cold war defense downsizing, make the host city and state perfect microcosms of the challenges facing America into the 21st century.

"It is no accident that when the inevitable explosion came, it came in Los Angeles," said Mr. Jacob, referring to the riots following the Rodney King verdict here in April.

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The Urban League's "Marshall Plan for America" - a 10-year, $500 billion program to rejuvenate cities formally introduced last year - was the unifying thread running through four days of speeches and seminars. Drawing a picture of United States markets being overtaken in a global economy and citing progress for blacks in the 1970s that reversed in the 1980s, 18,000 conferees examined worsening statistics from family income to educational levels to shrinking job markets.

"People can't understand why the Republican administration and the Democratic Congress don't have a strategic plan to heal racial divisions, revive the economy, help defense industries to convert to civilian markets, and create job opportunities for the minority poor," Jacob noted.

The conference received a welcome boost from Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton, who spoke here and embraced the league's Marshall Plan as a way of accomplishing his own goals.

"Your plan and my plan are about big ideas versus old ideas," Mr. Clinton said in an hour-long address interrupted 67 times by applause and several standing ovations.

Holding that upgrades in physical infrastructure create jobs at all levels while providing greater efficiency to business and industry, the Urban League Marshall Plan calls for the repair or replacement of 240,000 unsound or obsolete bridges and 77,000 other federal structures from train systems to airports.

In human-resource development, the plan adopts several broad-ranging programs from preschool learning for disadvantaged youth to extending the Job Training Partnership Act that emphasizes training for those with the most severe barriers to employment.

"This plan has come a substantial way since it was introduced," said Billy Tidwell, director of research for the National Urban League. "A year ago the prevailing response was, `intriguing idea, but let's talk about something else.' Now, Bush, Clinton, and Perot have come around to stressing some of these ideas as centerpieces of their own agendas. We are really pleased."

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