SIX months ago, as they walked through the smoking ruins of riot-torn Los Angeles, all of the presidential candidates had on their lips the heady promise of urban aid for inner cities. Today the delivery of urban aid is in President-elect Clinton's lap.
How quickly and effectively the new president delivers on promises hinges on three factors: his ability to keep the problems of inner cities from being crowded out by other domestic and international issues; his ability to coax bipartisan congressional action; and his ability not to add to the federal budget deficit with short-term, money-swallowing social programs.
Mr. Clinton more than once has indicated a concern for inner cities and his determination to create jobs there.
"Cities have not been treated very well over the last two decades by presidents," said Joseph Boskin, director of the urban studies public-policy program at Boston University. Yet "they are crucial to the economic and psychological viability of this nation.
"Clinton's first priority should be job creation. I'd like to see such efforts as Job Corps programs connected with universities and colleges, so that there are some long-term development of skills going on, and not just cleaning the streets."
Efforts by Republican and Democratic administrations over the last 30 years to solve a host of deepening inner-city problems read like a badly told story that never seems to end. The Great Society programs of President Johnson spent enormous amounts of money on poverty and inner cities, but came away with only two enduring legacies, Head Start and the Job Corps.
Much-heralded programs like the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act [CETA] under President Nixon and the Model Cities program under Mr. Johnson saw many funds end up in middle-income projects - or become lost in bureaucratic delays and policy shifts, some urban specialists say.
During the Carter and Reagan years, poor, unemployed blacks remained very heavily concentrated in cities, leading to more pronounced residential segregation. Whites, Asians, and Latinos are increasingly less likely to live near blacks in many inner cities; many whites have departed for the suburbs.
In Chicago, for instance, 71 percent of all blacks now live in one-race census tracts bordering other all-black census tracts, a pattern repeated in many other cities. This kind of downward spiral in social integration, when exacerbated by joblessness, has had broad social impact.
Violent crime in all major cities has increased over the last decade, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Schools have deteriorated and many businesses and banks have abandoned the inner cities. According to the National Urban League, an estimated 50 percent of all urban black children now live in poverty.
Such programs as enterprise zones in inner cities with special tax breaks for businesses were proposed under Ronald Reagan, but have hung in limbo for years.
A $27 billion urban-aid package approved by Congress this year was vetoed by President Bush six months after the Los Angeles riots. He said it included "numerous tax increases and would destroy jobs and undermine small business."
Many urban specialists agree with Clinton's promised pragmatic approach, to launch projects and programs that are prudently balanced between inner city needs and the need to cut the deficit. As yet, Clinton has provided few details about inner-city programs, whether he favors a heavy federal commitment or a combination of public and private funds.
"Enterprise zones should be high on Clinton's list of priorities," said Robert Hill, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University at Baltimore.
"But, " he says, " equally as important, he should target established community-based groups such as the resident-management corporations in public housing. Many of these are setting up businesses and hiring former welfare recipients. These groups should get all the reinforcement they need."
The first priority, however, many experts say, should be jobs programs. Since 1980, adult black men have had unemployment rates above 10 percent every year. In 1972, the unemployment rate for black men was 7.2 percent. And per capita income for blacks in 1990 was $9,017. For whites it was $15,265.
"There are hard choices to be made," said Billy Tidwell, director of research for the National Urban League.
"Clinton has to deal with the deficit," he said, "but the economic conditions that feed into it, such as the costs associated with the neglect of inner cities, need a high priority. There will be a good deal of pressure from reasonable people to move the Clinton administration in that direction."
If Clinton should turn to a network of public-work programs, would the effort result in inflationary federal spending?
"More money is expended to stop crime," Mr. Boskin said, "than is spent in putting people to work. When a riot occurs, like the one in L.A., rebuilding the city is much more expensive to deal with than putting people to work in the first place."