AMERICA'S ailing cities, long ignored by Washington policymakers, have become inescapable problems for the White House and Congress.
The Los Angeles riots and related unrest across the country thrust the decay of the nation's most densely populated centers into public awareness. Urban environments are home to some 80 percent of Americans; the inner cities are struggling with crime, drugs, homelessness, unemployment, and neglected infrastructure.
Democrats blast the Bush administration for not answering the call to form a national urban- renewal strategy.
President Bush stoked the political fire this week when he convened Cabinet members at the White House to devise a post-riot plan. He blamed the Democrats for the "total failure of Great Society liberalism," referring to social policies of the 1960s and '70s.
While exchanging barbs, all parties point to their own limited resources and the need for greater commitment from each other.
Beyond the partisan debate is a stark financial outlook. With the national debt approaching $4 trillion and the federal budget deficits well over $300 billion every year, states, cities, and local communities are under pressure to pick up the spending slack caused by Uncle Sam's retrenchment. The National Governors' Association and the US Conference of Mayors worry about those shrinking federal funds. The 1986 tax reforms removed many incentives for the private sector to invest in housing or business dev elopment; state and local governments are left with an inadequate tax base to sustain services.
But a national strategy mapped out in Washington may not meet local priorities. Active in this week's debate on urban needs, mayors from across the United States cite varying measures they would adopt as first steps, all of which would compete for federal funds. Top priorities range from development of transportation, communications and waterworks to provisions for affordable, government-financed housing and child care.
Administration officials are outlining their own agendas. Jack Kemp, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was among the Cabinet members attending Bush's post-riot working sessions at the White House earlier this week. He faults Congress for not passing legislation that would establish enterprise zones, designed to lure tax-free business investment in the inner cities.
Property ownership is rare among the inner-city poor. "It's basically public housing," Secretary Kemp told reporters this week. "Jobs are on the government payroll or nonexistent. We have young people growing up in America and some who are unemployed ... who have never known in their whole life what it's like to ... have a job, to own a home or to own a piece of property, or to have a stake ... in the American dream."
On a trip to Sydney, Australia, this week, US Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander told the Monitor he lamented the low expectations for minority children within the education system. "For too long we have not expected all of our children to learn to the same high standards," he said, "and so some of them - a disproportionate number of them minority students - end up unprepared for the workplace and they are left out and understandably frustrated when they find themselves there." Secretary Alexander is
working to bring elementary and secondary schools up to world standards and reach a high school graduation rate of 90 percent by the year 2000. Inner city investing
US Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin, who also joined the White House working sessions this week, has been promoting the administration's new job-training programs during the past several months.
"Education and training programs are dead ends if there are no jobs available," says Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute. "Enterprise zones are a very secondary issue. The reason why no one is investing in the inner cities has nothing to do with the tax rate and everything to do with conditions. It's dangerous and lacks consumers with money." The way to foster stability and a sense of community is through local development that provides people with access to funds for school, to buy hom es, and to start businesses, he says.
That is what the House Select Committee on Hunger is proposing this week. In a May 5 letter circulated on Capitol Hill, Committee Chairman Tony Hall (D) of Ohio and Rep. Mike Espy (D) of Mississippi call on Congress to support micro-enterprise programs and individual development accounts in the so-called "Freedom From Want Act."
Representatives Hall and Espy say that the recent riots "represent the frustration of people systematically denied the assets - business, homes, college educations, foundations. They need to control their own lives and strengthen their own communities." Hope for impoverished
Hunger committee spokesman Neal Flieger says the legislation calls on the federal government "to clear the road blocks to social programs so that impoverished people can create wealth." Mr. Flieger refers to federal laws that penalize welfare recipients for accumulating assets over $1,000. The bill would allow Americans now on food stamps or Medicaid to accumulate capital or business equipment worth up to $10,000, penalty-free. If "assets are hope in a concrete form," he says, then the committee's work c an help replace rage with confidence.