Conquering a Culture Of Poverty and Despair

THE scene evoked a Bob Dylan song, "Desolation Row." Passing Dixwell Avenue's vacant buildings and garbage-strewn lots, I turned right onto Southwest Drive with its decaying projects. There was an eerie stillness. The few residents outside nodded greetings as I walked through broken glass.

I was in New Haven, Conn., to visit a boy I'll call Larry Dowd, now 15, who's been my "little brother" since 1989. After three years in mental-health and state youth facilities, he had just returned home. Home is a cramped apartment he shares with seven siblings and his mother. Larry has a room to himself because two of his brothers are in jail for selling drugs.

Larry is determined to elude the dealers who invite him to join their enterprise. Yet even if he manages to resist them, he has little hope. Nearly illiterate, he struggles to overcome a learning disability, mental illness, and social deprivation. His chief comfort is his charm with girls.

During our visit, Larry said he wanted to father a child, someone who would admire and depend on him. Optimistic that he could persuade his girlfriend to agree, he reacted nonchalantly to my admonitions about birth control and the burdens of child-rearing.

I knew what he was thinking. How could I - safe across the gulf of privilege, culture, and race - possibly comprehend his experience? How could I advise him?

Larry Dowd's story raises questions about inequality, opportunity, and personal responsibility. Yet this account should not arouse merely liberal sympathy or conservative ire. The Dowds of America are not strictly victims; nor are they fully able to guide their own destinies. They are fallible human beings who, with limited power over grim circumstances, often make destructive decisions.

Sometimes those decisions are based on economics, as in the drug trade or in the reluctance of young mothers to marry, for fear of losing public assistance. In other cases, a sheer lack of responsibility on the part of parents (who have multiple children they can't support) or youngsters (who give up on school) is to blame. There also are the acts of desperation; for instance, when teens have children as a cure for low self-esteem.

The standard liberal remedies for these social ills, including better schools and economic development, are necessary but not sufficient. Conservative prescriptions - hard work and discipline - also are inadequate. We must unite both visions and, most important, back our concepts with our commitment.

We can begin by funding extensive family-planning initiatives. Congress, for example, should reconsider planned cuts in the federal Title X program. Putting aside ideological differences over the morality of extramarital sex, let's agree that it will continue to occur. We can preach abstinence but must teach contraception. Young people also need encouragement. Mentoring, tutoring, and summer jobs are all worthwhile. Early intervention and parental education should be applied more widely.

These suggestions are familiar, but they bear repeating. Each year, approximately 1 million teenage girls become pregnant. Disproportionately poor with little education, they tend to see the same conditions reflected in their offspring. Without funds for child care, transportation, and job training, welfare "reform" will do little to counter this pernicious trend. Neither will increased prison capacity reduce the probability that prisoners' children will follow the career paths of their parents. Tax and spending cuts, however conducive to economic growth, will also be largely futile in addressing the isolation of the growing underclass.

Government can foster dependency and is not in itself a solution. Private, voluntary action - comprising businesses and other institutions, as well as individuals - is crucial. But volunteerism is not in itself a solution, either. In more than six years of contact, my impact on Larry has been marginal. And even granting that such efforts can help, how likely is it that enough volunteers are willing to devote time and attention to nurturing Larry's siblings? It's no coincidence that foster parents typically have to be paid.

Indeed, we're already paying mightily for the underclass, and not only through foster care. Welfare, AIDS, crime, health-care cost-shifting - it's a sad litany. Regrettably, our approach to these crises is denial, based on the premise that less government is the easy answer.

Humbled by its failures and building on its successes, we should reengineer the "war on poverty." Scarce dollars must be wisely directed - to family planning and other areas that yield maximum benefit. We should also contemplate modest changes in tax policy. This country has to summon the energy and imagination to change a culture - a culture not just of poverty, but of hopelessness.

More than 80 years ago, W. E. B. DuBois told a friend: "You and I can never be satisfied with sitting down before a great human problem and saying nothing can be done. We must do something. That is the reason we are here on Earth." For the Larry Dowds and for the nation, we must do something.

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