Changing Views Of US Poverty And Inequality

Three recent books offer insights, solutions on welfare, work, and America's underclass

THE END OF EQUALITY By Mickey Kaus, Basic Books, 293 pp., $25; THE NEW POLITICS OF POVERTY: THE NONWORKING POOR IN AMERICA By Lawrence M. Mead, Basic Books 356 pp., $25; THE DISPOSSESSED: AMERICA'S UNDERCLASSES FROM THE CIVIL WAR TO THE PRESENT By Jacqueline Jones, Basic Books 399 pp., $25

THE United States Congress may be stymied on questions of poverty and race. But about seven blocks behind the Capitol buildings, near the border between the affluent white enclave and the urban poverty that surrounds it, is an institution that may hold some clues.

It is not a think tank or lobby group. Rather, it is a public swimming pool. The Capitol Hill Natatorium, run by the District of Columbia, provides something rare in America today: a place where white lawyers and professionals mix with black city kids in an atmosphere of civility.

Mickey Kaus doesn't mention the natatorium specifically in his new book, The End of Equality. But he argues that the US desperately needs more places like it. Liberals have spent far too long in a fruitless and politically destructive quest for equality of income, he says. Instead of striving to take money from some and give it to others, they should rebuild a civic arena in which money doesn't matter so much to begin with.

Kaus's book, which is receiving much attention, appears at a time when Americans are rethinking these fractious issues in a fundamental way.

In Congress, liberals have accepted the idea - at last - that people on welfare should be expected to work. Conservatives, meanwhile, have embraced the ideas of social planning and industrial policy in their preferred form of "Enterprise Zones" to steer investment to inner cities.

Into this debate comes Kaus, who wants to reclaim the work-ethic banner for liberals, while linking it to a larger vision of civic life. Democrats have to outgrow their money fetish, he says. So what if the rich got richer in the Reagan years, he asks. In a capitalist economy, some will always do better than others.

The important questions, he says, are first: Is there more opportunity for all? And second: Are the nation's social and civic bonds growing stronger?

This second question is something the political right, enamored of individualism, rarely addresses. But liberals have fallen away from this question as well. So Kaus is calling for a new "Civil Liberalism" to replace "Money Liberalism." This means reviving institutions like public schools, libraries, and parks, which can bring together people of different classes and races. Kaus would revive the draft and combine it with national service through which young people could pay off student debts. He would cu rb the influence of money in politics.

This agenda provides a compelling social basis (as opposed to a moralistic one) for turning welfare into work. "The Civic Liberal ideal of class-mixing in the classroom is quite hopeless as long as the underclass is one of the classes to be mixed," he says.

Kaus is an editor at the New Republic magazine, and parts of "The End of Equality" read like a debate between the ideological factions there. Liberals tend to talk "policy" in a brainy manner without the lyric, inspirational lift that people like Jack Kemp and George Gilder bring to the conservative side.

Kaus is the next best thing. He's an agile thinker with a gift for the apt phrase, and he's alert to where the reader's interest might flag. He knows that "Civic Liberalism" is no piece of cake. How to create new civic crossroads when the whites have moved to the suburbs? How to sell the draft politically, and establish urban public schools that whites really want to send their kids to?

Kaus grapples bravely with such difficulties instead of sweeping them under the rug. But more important than any specific solutions is what he brings to the larger debate: a sense of "we" in place of the appeals to self-centered little "me's" that have increasingly defined the nation's politics and culture.

CONFIRMATION that Kaus is on to something comes from a former Republican policy honcho by the name of Lawrence Mead. A professor at New York University, Mead argues in The New Politics of Poverty: The Nonworking Poor in America that America has reached a watershed regarding poverty. Until now, he says, governments could assume in people the inner engines of self-betterment. The challenge was mainly to open up avenues of opportunity. The early civil-rights movement sought a seat on the bus, not a handout to pay the fare.

Mead calls this the nation's "Progressive" political tradition. By this he means not just the clean-government reformers of the early 20th century but also readiness to use government to help workers and the middle class.

In the '60s, this dynamic changed fundamentally, he says. Liberals declared the poor "victims" of social forces; economists meanwhile thought prosperity would continue forever. So there arose the notion of entitlement - not just to opportunity but to monetary support as well.

Today the nation has an urban subculture stuck on welfare - not entirely for this reason, but there's no denying a connection. It's no longer enough for government to open new opportunity; it now has to instill competence and motivation as well. The Welfare Reform Act of 1988 was the "leading monument to the new paternalism," Mead says. Its workfare measures, however necessary, were really a form of behavior modification.

To his credit, Mead tells this story without cheap partisan shots. Liberals will find fault with his analysis - he gives short shrift to social barriers to work, for example, and downplays such influences as the commercial culture. Ghetto kids, convinced they have to have a pair of $140 Nikes, are less inclined to work for "chump change" at McDonald's. But Mead fell into the economist's trap of surmising from data, instead of spending time to find out how people really live.

Still, his book should be as useful to liberals as to conservatives. He reminds them of how they lost the blue-collar vote when they abandoned the work ethic. Mead also realizes that Americans are not innately against government. They support government, he says, when it comes to the aid of people perceived as deserving. "When poverty became largely nonworking," he writes, "support fell for government social change."

That's Kaus's contention too.

AND if a new book by Jacqueline Jones, a professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., is correct, it's also a contention with which most blacks would agree. Writers sometimes portray the nation's "underclass" - often a euphemism for "blacks" - as separate from the values of mainstream America. Jones reminds readers that a work ethic is deeply rooted in the tradition of black America.

In The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses From the Civil War to the Present, she demonstrates, through exhaustive historical research, that blacks have sought in the US exactly what other groups have sought: a chance to better their lives. They had to work all the harder to achieve whatever measure of stability they have attained. Jones finds that poor whites from the sharecropper South showed very similar patterns of migration and culture, suggesting that social factors such as opportunity do indeed l oom large.

Jones is especially good at showing how negative stereotypes of blacks were often twisted renditions of their responses to hardship. As sharecroppers, for example, blacks found the economic deck stacked formidably against them. ("They can't succeed.") They moved constantly from one plantation to the next in search of a better deal. ("Shiftless.") Chasing the harvest north required leaving the kids with the grandparents. ("Pathological family structure.")

Jones illustrates why a dose of cultural diversity is so important in the schools. Everyone studied the white explorers and pioneers, but how many know of the great black migration that found Jim Crow at the factory gate? Regrettably, Jones crams her pages so relentlessly with research that the book is often a very dense read. She begins and ends with doctrinaire polemics on the underclass, where she should have left her library carrel and found out exactly how and where the gritty work ethic of the Sout h actually persists in the Northern ghettos today.

Certainly it does in the forgotten black working-class neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and other cities, where the prevailing view of welfare recipients and the underclass is less indulgent than that of Jones. Regardless, it bodes well for the nation's political debate that both sides now are talking about traditional values. Mead notes that, for all its travails, the US actually leads the world in attempting to deal with an urban underclass - something Europeans are just starting to encounter. In way s it would prefer not to be, America is once again the frontier.

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