Today's date:
Winter 1987

A Tale of Dual Cities

The Reagan presidency may well be remembered not for what was done in Iran and Nicaragua, but for what wasn't done in New York City or Detroit; not for what was done to help the Contras, but for what wasn't done to help America's children, an astonishing one in four of whom now live in poverty and all of whom will pay for trillion dollar deficits with the limited opportunity of future years.

Certainly, when we consider this shameful state of affairs, neglect of the nation's finances, its cities and its children will be linked to the greed sanctioned by an ideal of capitalism unbound. Once again it will be understood that a rising tide of enterprise, not just free but freed of social responsibility, is more likely to purchase a new yacht for Ivan Boesky than lift all boats.

In this perspective, the folly of overplaying liberal compassion with bureaucratic good intentions pales next to the crime of neglecting the future. And the future, it will be remembered, does not forgive the negligence of the past.

The New Urban Poverty
The first step in regaining ground against poverty is grasping today's new realities. The assumptions that guided social policy twenty years ago no longer apply to the new poverty which is preponderantly young and urban.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Great Society efforts toward integration and affirmative action went a long way in tearing down racial barriers to the American mainstream. Of greatest significance, the rise of a substantial black middle-class in the past two decades has diminished the central fear of the Kerner Commission, which concluded after investigating the 1967 race riots that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal." Yet, paradoxically, the very successes of the Great Society, when combined with the dislocations of the service and information revolution in our economy, have created a new and more intractable structure of urban poverty by further isolating those who remain in the ghetto. Today, concern with racial polarization has given way to a new fear: the disastrous convergence of class and racial segregation that is transforming America's urban landscape into "the dual city."

At the top of the dual city are the most educated and affluent white elites of American life - investment bankers, lawyers, doctors and corporate managers - guiding the growth of a dynamic, internationalized, knowledge - intensive economy. At the bottom are the poorest and least educated blacks and Hispanics, chasing vanishing entry-level jobs in the crumbling factories and shops of an industrial era which once supported the major cities of the American Northeast and Midwest. The better educated middle-class has fled to the suburbs where there aren't enough of them to absorb the plentiful entry-level jobs of the exploding service economy. Like a caravan packing up and trekking off into the sunset, the exodus of both the black and white middle-class to the suburban rings of growth has left behind an inner-city desert stripped of economic opportunity as well as the mediating structures which transmit mainstream values. The great industrial cities are becoming places where only the rich and the destitute dwell.

The result is an urban social fabric so rent with crime and violence that it is unraveling beyond repair. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan sees it, our major cities are facing "social regression" with "extraordinary levels of self-destructive behavior, interpersonal violence and extreme class separation" never before seen in America. John Lindsay, a former Mayor of New York and co-chairman of the Kerner Commission, has remarked that cities may not be burning down in one night, but the experience of much of urban America today can be described as "a slow motion riot."

The Political Dilemma of Regaining Ground
If reconciling the creed of equality with the reality of a new urban poverty is an American dilemma, devising the next social agenda is a dilemma for the Democrats, who have been this country's political mechanism for addressing class injustice, and since the civil rights movement, racial injustice. The Democrats must reconcile their post-civil rights identity with their pre-civil rights position as the party of middle America. This struggle to remain faithful to Democratic heritage and constituencies while seeking national power by appealing to an active electorate that is mainly white, middle-class, suburban and Sunbelt, can be glimpsed in this issue's theme discussion (see pp. 16-27).

Rev. Jesse Jackson and former Virginia Governor Chuck Robb, who heads the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, represent the two different approaches of the party to social policy. Along with the articulation of a post-Vietnam international strategy, social policy is the cutting edge which will shape the new face of the Democrats and perhaps determine their viability as a majority party.

The Limits of Reform
The immunity of the dual city to traditional social policy has prompted a rethinking of the nature of poverty and its remedies. The new social endeavor, characterized both by lowered expectations and the need for even greater effort than past policies begins by departing from the ideological belief that somehow the future can grow brighter for the individual while it grows darker for society as a whole.

There is now a recognition that the worst-off Americans are children and female heads of households. and that a child and family policy on the scale of the Great Society programs, which lifted the elderly out of poverty, is essential. The need for educational upgrading that will match the skills of the urban poor to the needs of the information economy is critical to breaking the cycle of joblessness.

While the private initiatives encouraged by may be of token help, they fall far short of what's needed. Government is the only entity that can mobilize the scale of resources called for, but government can't put the family back together again. Bureaucrats can't offer the care and concern of the local church or community group. While government can provide fair rules to play by, it can't provide moral leadership and weave integrity into community life.

It is doubtful, however, that ghettos can once again become vital communities. While the family and church are called upon to do what government can't, in America today such mediating institutions themselves are weak and under strain, especially in the ghetto. This makes it difficult to ignore the persuasive record that out-migration to the mainstream, not renewal, has been the historical road to opportunity.

Finally, any seriously effective effort requires not only an immense, but enduring investment of time, commitment and money. And, unlike the Great Society years, that has to happen within a limited social space restricted by threatening deficits, slowing growth and a middle-class fearful of its own demotion by the rapid shifts of the internationalized information economy.

For all these reasons, it may not be unrealistic to conclude that the ambition of the next social agenda is not to build a Great Society, but merely to hold this one together.

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