The America We Can No Longer Ignore

Television has not been kind to the American people in the past week. The unblinking screen that enters every household has presented a remorseless series of images. First, the already familiar and numbing picture of white policemen standing idly by while two of their number continue to beat a helpless, prone black man. Then, the shocking live tableau of hordes of people--mostly but not entirely young, black, and male--beating innocent bystanders, looting stores, and setting large sections of a U.S. city aflame in the face of impotent police and fire departments.

Such images will not easily fade from the nation's consciousness. Perhaps predictably in an election year, they have already given rise to an outpouring of partisan recrimination. Conservatives and Republicans have laid the blame for the riots at the doorstep of the Great Society programs of the 1960s, which in their view coddled criminals, enriched a welfare bureaucracy, wasted huge amounts of taxpayer dollars, and enfeebled the poor by reinforcing their dependency on government handouts. Democrats have decried the malign neglect of Republican Administrations that have turned their attention and federal dollars away from the cities and have starved social programs while cynically blaming the nation's poor and disadvantaged for their plight at a time of vast destabilizing structural changes in the economy.

We believe that it's time for reason to replace rhetoric, for the backbiting and maneuvering for political advantage to stop. The genius of Americans lies not in their ideological fervor, but in their pragmatism, in their willingness to listen, learn, experiment, and move forward. The experience of recent decades offers plenty of guidance to the steps the nation must take as it seeks to heal its urban ills and bring the restless, alienated youngsters that roam its inner cities into the mainstream of American life.

CRUEL IRONY. First, it's important to acknowledge that progress has been made. Affirmative action, antidiscrimination legislation, and the efforts and energy of blacks themselves have produced tangible results. One sign of this progress is the presence of black and minority faces at the highest levels of municipal, state, and national governments. Another is the emergence of a significant and vibrant black middle class. Indeed, one of the cruel ironies of this success is that it has worsened the plight of the poorest blacks, as upwardly mobile blacks have moved to the suburbs and thus removed the role models and support that an economically integrated community provides.

Second, it is clear that the growth of the underclass has many causes. The most disheartening aspect gf the litany of problems besetting the underclass is that they are all real. The breakdown of the family and growth of female-headed households, a failing education system, the emergence of a drug culture, the loss of jobs to foreign manufacturers, suburban flight, and inadequate health care all contribute to the problem. Even worse, they are interactive in their effects. All of this means that there is no quick, single, easy solution to the crisis of our inner cities.

It does not mean, however, that there are no solutions. Some social programs of the 1960s, inspired by an unrealistic belief that government could solve all ills, wasted money and were often ineffective and even counterproductive. These included prison reform and many of the poorly targeted employment programs. We now know better. We know that the enemy is a beast with many heads, each of which must be attacked. We know, too, that out of the welter of programs developed in past decades, there were some that worked.

It is these that we would place in our agenda for the cities. Such programs as Head Start, the Job Corps, and child nutrition need to be expanded. Educational initiatives such as merit pay for teachers and school choice should be strengthened, as should welfare reforms that link work and training to eligibility, eliminate requirements that discourage marriage, and remove disincentives to leave welfare rolls. We need to consider reviving public-service employment, which gave work experience to the disadvantaged in the 1970s and provided their communities with teachers' aides and school guards. And enterprises that locate in blighted urban areas and self-help efforts by communities deserve greater support.

NEEDED VITALITY. At the same time, it's important to note that programs that address the general ills of the economy directly help the poor. This would be true of an overhaul of the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Such investment can have a potent effect on the nation's productivity, but it also provides jobs. Construction is a labor-intensive industry with need for semiskilled workers. Expanded public-works programs could offer entry-level jobs at relatively decent wages to the youth of our urban underclass who spurn menial low-paying jobs in favor of the rewards offered by drug trafficking and other crime.

Can we afford to mount a broad-based effort to help the underclass? The real question is whether we can afford not to. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other nation, some 1.15 million at last count, at $20,000 a head. Budgetary constraints underscore the need to spend money carefully, enlisting the participation of the private sector and most of all, of the communities at risk. And progress will be slow and halting, with no one program making more than a marginal difference by itself.

We believe that slowly, incrementally, with action on many fronts, the tide in our cities can be turned and many poverty-stricken people brought back into the mainstream of American life. We believe that such action is consistent with efforts to revive our overall economy via savings and investment, and should go hand in hand with such efforts. A dynamic expanding economy is the sine qua non of progress for our poorest citizens. At the same time, with the growth of the U.S. work force slowing dramatically in the 1990s, the economy's future vitality depends on the ability and readiness of all Americans to respond to the opportunities it offers. The time to begin to enhance that ability and readiness is now.

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