Reagan's 'sellers' find Urban League a wary "buyer"
Washington — Representatives of the Reagan administration -- bearing arguments for a balanced budget, proposals for cuts in various human services programs, and plans to eliminate others -- are waging a four-day campaign to sell their wares to black people.
Their target is the National Urban League, now holding its annual conference in Washington, with some 10,000 participants. Their weapons are computer readouts of facts and figures, analytical discourses, and personal charm.
To tackle an audience likely to practice the silent treatment wih stone faces , polite applause, and obvious scepticism, President Reagan has dispatched, among other top officials, Office of Management and Budget Director David A. Stockman, a master of facts and figures, and Vice- President George Bush, the charmer.
Speaking in an analytical, rapid-fire monotone, Mr. Stockman raced through pages of statistics -- some of the same data the Urban League has used to depict the plight of the black and poor. His purpose was to relay one basic thought to his black listeners:
"We are at the turn of the road. The old road has been bumpy. Old programs have not worked and it has been costly, too costly. Take a look at the new direction we offer. Our directions are by no means what they have been made to seem. We inherited severe problems. Let us debate soberly, objectively, and reasonably."
But it's doubtful that Mr. Stockman or the other administration speakers here have as yet found many "buyers." William J. Haskins, director of social services and human resources for the league, had a typical response: "The administration bases its approach on pure economics. It does not take consider the social-economics of what happens to one section of the population, the poor."
He argues that both Mr. Bush and Mr. Stockman lack the personal contact and experience needed to address the problems of the poor. "They are more concerned with the numbers gained and balancing the books, thus making the poor and black expendable," he asserted.
A basic point, according to Shirley Hicks, executive director of the Urban League of eastern Massachusetts, is that social programs such as those being cut by the administration, often do work. Her organization runs several federally funded programs.
Its most effective programs aid senior citizens, train welfare mothers for job placement, and serve youth, she says.
Mr. Haskins was willing to concede that the basic economic principles preached by Mr. Stockman apply under "ordinary" circumstances. "The problem," he said, "is that black people, who are a disproportionate percentage of the poor, are not considered."
In various appearances before the conference, Urban League president Vernon E. Jordan has offered two basic ideas of how the economic problems facing blacks and poor people might be more effectively addressed by government.
One is the league's previously advocated "reverse income tax for the poor" -- a means for setting a basic minimum income as a substitute for welfare. The other is a "Marshall Plan" to provide special financial aid to disadvantaged communities. Mr. Jordan also calls for effective use of proposed "enterprise zones" to assure that they reach the poor.
For his part, Vice-President Bush attempted to soothe the delegates, saying, "It is not so much a credibility gap that separates us; it is more of a communications gap. We've got to keep talking. We've got to keep listening."
Mr. Bush said the Urban League and the administration share beliefs -- equal rights for all, fight against crime and drugs, jobs for youth, sensitivity to the tragedies of Atlanta. "The door to the Reagan White House is always open," the vice-president continued. "Our minds are open to any new ideas for economic recovery. Don't bring us the old agenda that has failed."
But for the present, the gap between the administration's outlook and that of the black community as represented at this gathering, is wide. In his keynote address to the conference, Urban League head Jordan sardonically called the administration's economic program a "jellybean budget."
He went on to say: "Defenders of the budget will tell us that black people are not being singled out. That's true. It's only poor people who are being victimized. And we are 12 percent of the population but one-third of the poor. So we are the victims."