Urban Aid Bill Acceptable to All, Loved by None
Front-line aid workers are not impressed by recent federal largess. AFTER THE RIOTS
WASHINGTON — A CHAPTER opened by the Los Angeles riots two months ago is nearing a close.
By the last hour of the last workday of last week, the political response of the federal government had been hammered together.
If the Senate can pass a long- term urban-aid bill in the next few weeks similar to the one the House passed late Thursday, then the President will sign it, according to the White House.
The centerpiece of the package is 50 enterprise zones - a set of tax breaks for investment in designated areas. The enterprise zones the House voted to create would cost the United States Treasury $2.5 billion over five years. In order to win passage, the bill places half the zones in urban neighborhoods and half in rural districts.
It is the sort of compromise that no one really believes in but no one seriously objects to, either.
The Bush administration wanted enterprise zones at the center of its urban response, but the tax breaks were not as deep as it had sought.
Democrats generally see some potential benefit in enterprise zones, but only a marginal benefit that needs the support of training, jobs, and drug treatment programs to change lives or neighborhoods.
This long-term program to promote investment in the cities follows passage in late June of an emergency aid bill that will set aside $500 million for summer jobs for youths and another $500 million in loans and assistance for neighborhoods damaged in the Los Angeles riots, the Chicago flooding, and other recent disasters.
People working on the front lines against poverty and alienation in cities are not much impressed by this show of federal largess.
Not that those getting more help cannot use it. For example, LaVall Brown, who runs the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Boston, says the emergency money means she will have about ten jobs to offer young people instead of the three-to-five she could otherwise afford.
But Lou Dantzler, director of Challengers Boys and Girls Club in Los Angeles, has worked with youths for 24 years, and he sees little in the federal response that will make a difference in his work. Nothing works quickly
The summer jobs program, for example, is targeted at young people from very low-income families.
While the funding for as many as 70 jobs will be available, he expects it will not help his organization place many people. The youths who are ready and motivated enough for the jobs are mostly in families who earn a little too much, he says.
"The ones who qualify aren't applying," he says.
If one clear lesson has emerged from the riots and the public mobilization that followed them, it is that nothing works quickly or on a one-time basis.
"Quick fixes have political appeal," says Robert Weissbourd, president of South Shore Bank, which seeks to develop poor districts of Chicago's South Shore. "But they end up undermining progress."
The current proposals from the federal government, he says, "with some exceptions, aren't going to work."
The rush of energy to respond to the Los Angeles riots carries its own bias toward quick action rather than serious, steady investment in proven programs.
Mr. Dantzler appeared last week on a network news story responding to the new urban package as it passed the House. The TV correspondent said that the new spending was at least a "beginning." But Dantzler is skeptical.
So is Mr. Weissbourd. "We're getting our 15 minutes of fame," he says, noting that since the riots he has been featured on the front pages of several leading newspapers and on a TV news show.
"It's ironic because we've been here 20 years," he says. Public wants urban aid
The riots did, however, transform the political landscape in an election year. Many political consultants and independent pollsters point to the riots as a downturn point for President Bush.
Public concern was suddenly focused on serious domestic problems that the president was not addressing to the public's satisfaction.
Both Congress and the White House have been eager to show that they can get something done on the problem.
The Gallup Poll found a strong post-riot consensus in support of new government funding targeted at inner cities, such as Head Start preschool programs and public- works projects. At least 80 percent of whites and 90 percent of blacks support such spending.