Reacting to cutbacks in Britain and America

Despite recent expressions of anxiety, Americans seem to worry less than the British about civil disorder. One must wonder why. Unemployment has been higher in Britain but is alarming enough in the United States. Conservative budget-cutting may have been pioneered there, but Britain's cuts have been modest compared with America's. The British government seems wary of wiping out entitlements and of structural change. No British official's statement approximates David Stockman's ''I don't believe there is any entitlement . . .'' and no reordering is envisioned as deep as ''new federalism.''

The British government expresses stringency mainly in declining to maintain ''real'' income and the quality of services. One category of unemployment benefits - larger payments to the unemployed whose wages have been relatively high - has been wiped out. And public housing is being offered for private ownership, tenants first. However, both were considerable political issues, and the latter is the only major expression in social services policy of uniquely conservative ideology. Queried about cuts in public welfare or social security, a Briton will calculate government failure to keep pace with increases in cost of living. Absolute reductions have been virtually unknown.

In the US, 650,000 families have lost welfare or had absolute reductions in benefits because of changes last October. One million people have been dropped from the food stamp program and benefits reduced for millions more. The proposed federal budget would cut out another $2.3 billion, eliminating or reducing food stamps for the elderly and the working poor.

The President's denials notwithstanding, beneficiaries have been dropped from social security - dependent children in college, widows with an orphaned child of 16 or 17, the newly retired who last year would have received a minimum benefit.

That darling of British socialist governments, the health service, has been protected in budgetary terms. In the US, however, medicare patients will be expected to pay a larger share of costs incurred, and many medicaid patients will become ineligible - cutbacks aggregating $6 billion in 1982 and 1983.

Yet state officials in the US have mainly been heard to wonder at the absence of protest, while in Great Britain there is widespread talk of ''two nations'' and ''explosive inner city youth.'' White House aides Robert Carleson and Kevin Hopkins have more or less dismissed the likelihood of unrest. In any case, Mr. Carleson has said, ''no threat of unrest, whether idle or not, should be permitted to cow a government. . . .'' It is hard to grasp why the US, cutting more fiercely, should be less concerned. Disorders in London and Liverpool are fresh, but disorder in Miami is not so old. The devastation in Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington are surely not out of mind.

Reading the evidence they read (reports on Miami probably, surely no more), Carleson and Hopkins concluded ''that most unrest is not precipitated by indigence'' but by racial conflict. Perhaps they took the lesson they were seeking. Racial injustice can precipitate violence, but long-continued deprivation is its fertile seedbed if not primary cause. So studies on recent disorders in both Miami and England conclude.

One does not conclude that sharper deprivation and racial injustice (has anyone said that racial injustice is diminishing?) will lead to disorders soon, but only that causes are complex and it is foolhardy to dismiss the possibility.

Still there may be an insight in the ways that British and American societies differ. Study after study seems to show the withdrawal of Americans, particularly of disadvantaged Americans, from political and public arenas. After the war on poverty failed, after Vietnam, and after Watergate perhaps even the most desperate adopt a learned passivity. This may be particularly so if the lesson of the air controllers' strike is that resistance will be met with tough repression.

The British citizenry have not been deeply wounded in precisely these ways. Moreover, for them conflict and tension have long found expression in an openly acknowledged class society - and politically through the Labour Party.

It may be that in the US conflict and tension are, for a time at least, more likely to be diffused, private, and underground. Violent crime has increased here year by year - 11 percent each in 1979 and 1980. Social workers report that children, women, and the aged are increasingly abused, in a manner never before seen. If Americans prefer secret or random anger and despair to organized, public expressions, perhaps they can have it.

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