How government sees the ghetto

Washington is a million miles from Watts - from Harlem, from Anacostia. While the problems of such inner-city black communities are high on the congressional agenda, any consensus as to the real causes of those problems or how they should be practically addressed is hard to come by. And though well-intentioned, the views of Washington power-brokers often seem to be very remote from the realities of life in the ghetto. A disproportionate number of black Americans are poor; their children are having children; too many men are idle; too many youths are behind bars; minds are being wasted; and communities are desolate.

Meanwhile, countless studies are compiled and politicians debate such issues as unemployment, teen-age pregnancy, and education. But those in power seem to be split between exhorting the poor to ``pull themselves up by their bootstraps,'' on the one hand, and a desire to apply programs and invest money on the other. The gap between politics and people

There is also a growing and highly significant movement that emphasizes the need to support self-help strategies at the grass-roots level.

If there is a gap between black and white Americans - a gap largely defined by economics and class, as well as by racism and defacto segregation - there is a chasm between most solutions offered by politicians and bureaucrats and the realities of life in America's poor black communities.

Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, may have had the right idea when he said in an interview, ``Every member of Congress should spend a year in the inner city.''

Those in Washington may be uncertain and contradictory when it comes to setting policies to solve the problems of poor black Americans, but the poor themselves know perfectly well what is needed: jobs that pay a decent wage; good education and training in marketable skills; exposure and access to the opportunities this country offers; respect and equality in American society.

Blacks point out that teen-age pregnancy, drug abuse, and crime are not ``pathologies'' peculiar to black culture. They are a response to conditions that offer inner-city blacks little in their search for fulfillment.

``The problem of inner-city people is not innate or congenital,'' the Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Monitor. ``It's the result of social, government, and corporate policy. We are divesting in the inner city and investing in the suburbs. Where there's investment, communities flourish. Where there's divestment, communities perish.''

``We don't need to do a lot of studies, as if there is something enigmatic or peculiar about inner cities - whether they're white or black or brown,'' says Mr. Jackson. ``If you build schools, people learn skills and they can be productive and pay taxes. When you cut back on schools and increase jails you get a predictable return on your investment.''

While social problems may be obvious, resolving them in a politically acceptable way is difficult. And public support is necessary before proposed solutions can be carried out. In today's political climate, there does not appear to be a widespread willingness to pay for programs that would benefit low-income blacks.

There is no cohesive national policy aimed at meeting the needs of low-income minority groups. The problems are multifaceted, but solutions tend to be one-track. And political interests and party dogma can block the use of timely, appropriate strategies. ``The instruments through which government can affect social conditions in a positive way are limited,'' says Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland. ``Many actions taken at the federal level seem counterproductive.''

Philosophically, the Reagan administration wants the federal government to do less designing, funding, and administering of social programs. It wants the states to do more and the private sector to do most of all. At the same time, the administration favors policies that it believes will instill in low-income minorities those ``civic virtues'' necessary for effective functioning in society. Does welfare cause social ills?

Many of today's policymakers express a sense of compassion for the plight of America's poor. But they also tend to blame the growth of public assistance for such problems as teen pregnancy, family breakdown, and welfare dependency. Cut public assistance, some policymakers say, and this will keep husbands and wives together, make teen-agers think twice before getting pregnant, and propel welfare recipients into the work force.

``Without in any way lessening our commitment to helping people in need, we need to address the other side of what's happened with generous social welfare programs - growing dependency,'' says Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute. ``We have what is regarded as definitive evidence that when you give a guaranteed income to intact families, you encourage divorce. One of the things that holds families together is economic need. Many women stay with their men because of economic need. The income of AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] has empowered women to leave family situations.''

Gary Bauer, undersecretary of education and head of the administration's task force on the family, makes a similar point about teen-age pregnancy: ``A teen-ager who thinks to herself, `What will happen to me if I get pregnant?' reaches the conclusion, `Well, I'm not going to starve, and my baby's not going to starve. I'll be able to set up my own household.' That can be fairly tempting. But if you're having a tough life at home because of economics, you're going to think really carefully when you make this decision.''

Robert B. Helms, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, says, ``When you combine several welfare programs together, like AFDC, food stamps, medicaid - it's better than getting a job. If that could be redesigned so that welfare recipients would have more of an incentive to get a job.... If they could make less.... Right now they don't have much incentive to get a job. They're not getting the skills and discipline to work their way up in the market.''

Because it draws on the realities of inner-city life, the most positive approach to inner-city poverty may be the self-help movement, as exemplified by Robert L. Woodson's National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

The center has identified hundreds of grass-roots black organizations all over the country are involved in job training, education, family counseling, pregnancy and crime prevention, entrepreneurship, and many other activities leading to self-sufficiency.

``We call for a new self-help renaissance in the black community,'' Mr. Woodson says. ``Such a movement is as essential to low-income blacks as the civil rights issue. If we want to succeed, we must go to those ... who have managed to experience success despite their social conditions. Leaders at the grass-roots level must be the principal source of information for fashioning new strategies to address the old problems facing black Americans.'' HIGHLIGHTED STATISTICS: In New York, which pays among the highest welfare benefits, a family of four gets $7,488 a year in welfare. A 40-hour-a-week minimume-wage job pays $6,968 a year.1 SOURCE: US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The poverty line for a family of four is $10,989 a year.2 SOURCE: US Census Bureau.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to How government sees the ghetto
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today