IN the weeks following the Los Angeles riots, the Bush administration has correctly identified some of the root causes of the violence: the disintegration of the family and traditional values, aided and abetted by Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. The urban package now put forward by the administration implicitly recognizes that Los Angeles was indeed a disaster set in motion by the runaway train of Great Society programs.
With almost $3 trillion spent on anti-poverty programs since the mid-1980s, we have a welfare system in Los Angeles and elsewhere that will provide a mother with enough money and benefits to keep the household above the poverty level. But it does so on two conditions: First, the woman must not get a job. And second, she must not marry anyone who works. This system has helped destroy the inner-city family. In poor neighborhoods like South-Central Los Angeles, more than half the children are born out of we dlock, fathers routinely abandon their families, young men grow up without the discipline and inspiration fathers provide, and few mothers find it attractive to work.
THAT is why White House support for a radical overhaul of the welfare system is essential. Several states, such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and most recently California, already have begun to tackle the chronic shortcomings of the welfare system. States are trimming benefits for the able-bodied, and reducing the incentives that now encourage family breakup and idleness. The administration wisely wants to speed up reform at the state level by making it easier for states to obtain exemptions from federal rules , so that they have more freedom to restructure their welfare programs.
Most Americans can choose where they want to live, and many can look forward to owning their own home and having a direct stake in their community. Most Americans also can have a strong say over how their children will be educated, either by moving to a neighborhood with good public schools or by choosing to send their kids to a private school.
But in many city neighborhoods, the poor often are condemned to live in crime-ridden, hopeless public-housing projects, and their children are consigned to a public school "education" that is an expensive scandal.
This plain fact of urban life is what lies behind the administration's "empowerment" proposals, championed by Housing Secretary Jack Kemp. The White House wants legislation to allow public-housing tenants much greater opportunity to manage and even own their projects. Such legislation could literally remake public-housing projects. In projects already managed by tenants, such as Kenilworth/Parkside in Washington, D.C., and even certain buildings in Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green project, the transform ation has been little short of miraculous. When residents run the project, and have a stake in the future, crime drops, graffiti disappears, and order and dignity return.
The administration also is pushing school "choice" proposals that would give inner-city parents greater control over their children's education by allowing the poor, not just the rich, to choose between public and private schools. By forcing schools to compete for students - and thus dollars - school choice would improve the quality of an inner-city education, and thus the employment prospects of teenagers.
The twisted incentives and paternalism of the Great Society welfare state must be changed before anything else can help turn around the cities. Without incentives for young men and women to seek work and live up to family responsibilities, enterprise zones and other strategies to create jobs will not succeed. Without residents having a stake in their community, attempts to control crime will fail. As long as the inner-city poor are prevented from taking responsibility for their own lives, frustration and
anger will continue to spark despair and violence.